As rumors keep stirring about the next round of supplier mergers, the emergence of the Becker Group from a modest Sterling Heights, MI, tool and die shop into a $1.4 billion global player in the interior integration game raises some important questions about the conventional wisdom driving the megadeals in supplier land.

Do you have to take your company public?

Do you have to manufacture every piece that fits into a conceptual interior module to be a major force?

Are the costs of bringing sharply contrasting cultures together worth the economies of scale and bargaining leverage one gains from a global production base?

First, a few facts about Becker's astounding growth:

Charles and Bruce Becker control the company their father Leonard started as Perfect Mold Co. back in the 1940s.

Last January, Becker acquired Happich Fibrit GmbH, a Wuppertal, Germany-based supplier of interior components. Happich's annual sales are double Becker's, and its nearly 30 facilities in Europe catapulted Becker onto Mercedes-Benz's, BMW's and Volkswagen's lists of key suppliers.

But Becker is not yet in the same league as Lear Corp. or Johnson Controls Inc. in terms of buying so many manufacturers that it controls production of every tuft of carpet or control switch on the inside of a vehicle.

Rather, its tool of leverage is its Megatech engineering and development campus, just south of I-696 in Warren, MI. Spread throughout seven buildings, three of which have been turned over to General Motors Corp.'s Midsize Car Div., is an impressive array of computer firepower. The strategy in a nutshell: He who controls the design will have as much or more leverage than he who controls production.

Together with Central Michigan University, Becker has even launched a training program, called Megatech Academy, where employees can earn a bachelor of science degree in automotive engineering. It both enhances skills of the existing work force and helps in developing a future talent pool.

"We're betting an awful lot on the theory that once a vehicle's interior design is approved, between 60% and 70% of the cost is predetermined," says Robert D. Albert, Becker's chief operating officer whom the Beckers lured from Dow Automotive last March. "By influencing the design, engineering, tooling and manufacturing, we will have a competitive advantage."

Think of it as vertical integration in miniature.

But melding cultures that differ in language and design philosophy is not easy, as Lear and Johnson Controls are discovering with their new partners.

"We've tried to take the best of each culture and blend them together, but it takes time," says Mr. Albert.

The advantage is when GM says a global presence is needed to meet future sourcing needs, Becker is ready on both sides of the Atlantic. It also is in the process of forming joint ventures in Thailand, India, Brazil and Japan, but none is complete.

Becker honed its budding reputation as a program manager by working with more than a half dozen suppliers on Chrysler Corp.'s Plymouth Prowler retro roadster. Despite the public relations value in that type of effort, most suppliers acknowledge that deciding who controls what is not always as harmonious as the participants would like outsiders to believe.

"We're all going to have to learn that sometimes we'll be Tier l and on other programs we'll be Tier 2," Mr. Albert says. "Not everyone can do everything as the main player."

So far, Becker has built its North American foundation largely as a Chrysler supplier. It provides most of the trim for the Voyager, Caravan and Town & Country minivans, some trim for the Ram and Dakota pickups and is likely to gain from the new Dakota-based sport/utility coming in 1997.

"We're seeing them on a lot of new programs coming down the pike," says Craig Cather, president of CSM Corp., a Lansing-based consultant. "They haven't been market leaders in terms of share."

Indeed, GM's Midsize Car Div. has assigned about 120 interior engineers to work in three of Becker's Megatech buildings, analyzing crashworthiness and other criteria for future vehicles such as the Chevrolet Lumina and Buick Regal. Becker is a contributor to GM's 1997 Chevrolet Malibu and Olds Cutlass.

Before they pull off another acquisition, the Beckers are going to have to decide whether such meteoric growth can be handled within a family-owned business. At 49 and 52, respectively, Charles and Bruce aren't ready to pass the company on to their heirs yet, but the burgeoning appetite for capital investment to keep a global engineering and manufacturing network competitive may require going public eventually.

"It's really a question of size and comfort level with our customers," says Mr. Albert. "You can get to a certain critical mass when the industry is more comfortable with a publicly owned enterprise. We certainly talk about it. It's on the radar screen."