German supplier Behr America Inc. has traveled a long and indirect road to Detroit. Since 1969, the supplier of air conditioning and engine cooling systems has had U.S. operations in New Jersey, Charleston, SC; Fort Worth, TX; and Canton, SD. A year ago, the company opened a plant in Webberville, MI, near Lansing, that produces the industry's first electronically actuated engine cooling fan clutches for the new midsize General Motors Corp. sport/utility vehicles.

In April, the company began construction of its North American headquarters and technical center in Troy, MI. Behr Group Chief Executive Horst Geidel says the complex signifies a new focus to supply engine cooling and AC systems for light vehicles. Until now, the main customers were commercial vehicle producers. The challenge is huge, as Delphi Automotive Systems, Visteon Corp., Valeo SA and Denso Corp. have long-standing affiliations with automakers. Mr. Geidel says his company's advantage is its technology, its diverse customer base and its ability to compete on price. He expects sales will double to $500 million by 2005. The Troy complex will house 150 employees and an all-weather wind tunnel.