On the surface, Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp. would appear to be headed in opposite directions.

While one builds new plants, continues adding to its workforce, enters new product segments and rakes in record profits in North America, the other is shutting down plants, offering buyouts, scaling back product offerings (such as minivans) and racking up big losses.

But according to parts makers participating in the Ward’s Supplier Survey, the two auto makers are in a statistical dead heat as the OEM with which they most prefer to do business.

By a mere 0.10 of a percentage point, Toyota edges out GM. Placing third and fourth, respectively, are DaimlerChrysler AG and Ford Motor Co.

The survey results are surprising because suppliers have struggled – many of them in bankruptcy – as Big Three production volumes have fallen and as pressure to cut component prices has intensified.

Meanwhile, Toyota is carrying out an ambitious growth strategy for the North American market, and suppliers clearly enjoy the ride as they ramp up production to support the No.1 Japanese auto maker.

In general, suppliers say they like doing business with the Japanese because of a model that stresses collaboration, fairness, cooperation, mutual support and product quality, rather than price.

But the survey results suggest U.S. auto makers are improving their supplier business models, as well.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have emphasized in recent years the need to avoid painful emotional confrontations with parts makers but instead to allow a supplier’s performance (on quality, delivery, technology and cost) provide the basis for the relationship.

“I’m guessing the Big Three are quickly being humbled and are changing their ways. They have to to survive,” an OEM respondent writes. “The Big Three will rise again, and suppliers will once again be chomping at the bit for new business. As long as Big Three money is still green, suppliers will still come knocking.”

A supplier respondent to the survey says his company wants “to do business with strong customers, no matter who they are. We need our customers to thrive. We want to be aligned with the right customers.”

Although a number of supplier respondents seem willing to look to the future, others grouse about problems associated with Big Three component contracts.

“Generally speaking, the lesson of humility that domestic auto makers are receiving now is well deserved. They reaped what they sowed,” a supplier respondent writes.

“We are ready to do business with any OEM or supplier who complies with basic ethical business relationships. I am worried that if the U.S. auto manufacturers are permitted to die, then the American economy will perish,” another writes.

Ford suppliers in the survey complain the Dearborn, MI, auto maker is hard to please, and the jury appears still to be out on the success of Ford’s new Aligned Business Framework. The auto maker launched the initiative in 2005 to solidify ties to a smaller number of parts makers, with longer-term contracts.

Some 44% of supplier respondents say their companies have seen no positive benefits from the ABF program, and an even larger proportion (45.8%) are not sure how it is affecting their companies.

“End the program,” an unhappy supplier writes. “Ford cannot run their own company effectively. Why do they think they can run their suppliers effectively?”

About 10% of supplier respondents say their companies are benefiting from the program. The percentage may seem low, but many respondents are surprisingly upbeat in their comments about the ABF.

“Gaining new business from Ford,” was a comment from many survey respondents. “This has opened new opportunities for us.”

“Open and frequent communication with key decision makers,” writes another.

“Several new programs are coming online due to a competitor’s failure to deliver,” another supplier writes.

And this comment from a supplier is bound to put a smile on the face of Tony Brown, Ford’s senior vice president-global purchasing: “We have seen more recognition from Ford that a successful business relationship needs to be mutually beneficial and suppliers need to see a future.”

As for the Japanese, Toyota has been the perennial favorite among suppliers, while Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. lag Toyota and the Big Three for the second straight year.

Even though Honda and Nissan are ramping up vehicle production in North America, it appears suppliers will remain loyal to those auto makers that generate higher volumes.

“My company has been so dependent on the Detroit auto makers that the transition in dealing with transplants will take some time to integrate them into the system,” a supplier respondent writes.

“The Big 3 may not be a bed of roses, but neither are the transplants,” writes another.

“Our experience has been that U.S. auto makers do not recognize the value of innovation until after it is proven by European or Japanese OEMs,” another writes. “Also, they are not willing to pay, whereas the Europeans and Japanese are.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com