NORTH AMERICA'S LARGEST AUTOMOTIVE supplier, Magna International, illustrates the importance of steady leadership and a stable balance sheet.

While mega-supplier rivals Visteon and Delphi stumbled their way through a deep automotive recession in bankruptcy court and shed most of their North American operations, Canada's Magna weathered the storm with many of its business units intact.

Magna restructured in Europe and reduced capacity in North America, but not nearly to the extent of Delphi and Visteon. And today, the company is in the process of opening 16 new plants.

Like others, Magna lost money in 2009 ($493 million). But while many suppliers spent much of 2010 assessing the damage and beginning to rebuild, Magna ended the year with $973 million in net income ($4.18 per share) and a 39% jump in global sales to $24.1 billion.

Founder Frank Stronach could only dream of an enterprise this large when he started a small tool-and-die shop in a Toronto garage in the 1950s.

The corporate culture, created by Stronach, insists all 96,000 employees contribute to the company's achievements.

And yet, the person who has piloted Magna through its day-to-day successes in recent years, CEO Don Walker, shuns the notion that he deserves more credit than anyone else. His style is to provide quiet leadership, talk about himself as little as possible and shun the limelight unless it's unavoidable.

For proof, consult the company website, which has a short 1-paragraph biography on the 54-year-old Walker and not a single photo of him or other executives.

Since Siegfried Wolf left Magna in November as co-CEO to work in Russia for businessman Oleg Deripaska, Walker has the post to himself.

Founder Stronach remains chairman of Magna but is less involved in the company as he focuses on the e-Car electric-vehicle division. Stronach's daughter (and Walker's ex-wife), Belinda, left the company at the end of 2010, creating an opportunity to consolidate and rejigger the top levels of management.

Walker says an advantage of a traditional management structure with one CEO is the ability to make quick decisions.

“The down side is you can make the wrong decision, obviously,” Walker tells Ward's. “I'm a big believer in making sure we've got strong people,” he says, emphasizing the need to keep Magna decentralized. “I don't take the view that I'll tell everybody what to do.”

Walker has worked 23 years for Magna and was sole CEO for eight of those until 2000, after which he led the spinoff of Magna's interior business. Through 2010, he spent five years as co-CEO with Wolf.

He is upbeat about 2011, with vehicle sales climbing. “We're seeing a lot of demand right now. In some cases, our customers are pulling quite a bit over the stated (production) volume,” he says.

Magna's 16 new manufacturing plants are mostly in developing markets. All are expected to be online by 2012.

Five plants are slated for China. South America also gets five new facilities mostly dedicated to stamped and welded assemblies. One of the plants, near São Paulo, will produce complete seats for a future General Motors program.

In San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Magna's Cosma division will have 700 employees at a new plant supplying body and chassis components to several customers.

In the U.S., a new facility near Louisville, KY, will produce seats.

If Magna needs a particular technology to gain leadership in a product segment, “then we'll take a look at what we need to do to bolster it or partner,” Walker says.

In December, Magna acquired seating companies in Brazil and Argentina, as well as Erhard & Sohne, a German manufacturer of fuel tanks.

In third-quarter 2009, Magna purchased several facilities from defunct plastics supplier Meridian Automotive.

Its biggest acquisition, attempted in 2009, fell through when GM decided to keep German auto maker Adam Opel.

Walker has no hard feelings about the deal, saying it “probably was for the best” for GM. “I hope they would look back on it and think we gave them some good ideas.”

Major suppliers grade themselves based on how much content they have on new vehicles entering the market. For Magna, that measure is encouraging.

In North America, dollar content per vehicle grew 13% to $988 between 2009 and 2010.