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Posted on Sun, Jan 31, 2010 : 5:59 a.m.

Saline-based JAC Products returning to profitability, full staffing

By James Briggs

When Toyota Motor Corp. last week recalled millions of vehicles and suspended plant operations because of sticking accelerator pedals, no one could have blamed JAC Products Inc. for asking, "Why us?"

The Saline auto supplier, which specializes in roof racks, has withstood a gut-wrenching economic recession in perhaps the worst-hit industry. The company responded by fending off its largest competitor, rehiring laid-off workers and returning to profitability just one year after the lowest point in its 43-year history.

Then came the recent bad news from JAC's biggest customer: Toyota.

JAC is standing behind Toyota, which in 2009 awarded JAC its highest honor for supplier quality.

"(The recalls) definitely will have an impact on us," said Jeffrey Jaisle, JAC vice president of North American Operations. "But we're confident Toyota will figure out how to get its plants back up and running."

If any company understands resilience, it's JAC.

The company reduced its Saline workforce from about 400 at its highest level to fewer than 200 by December 2008.

JAC survived through 2009 as its biggest competitor, Sterling Heights-based Advanced Accessory Systems, went out of business, opening up the European market. As the defunct supplier's customers turned toward JAC, it quickly climbed out of the red.

A private company, JAC declined to offer specific financial information, but acknowledged 2009 looked bleak.

"We had negative operating margins for … the (first) time in company history," Jaisle said.

Yet the year ended much differently, as JAC reached the black by late-December and began rehiring every laid-off worker who wanted to return. JAC has increased its Saline staffing to 475 and has 50 workers in Shelby Township, 50 in Pontiac and 575 in Georgia.

"We've recalled everyone who was available to come back," JAC Corporate Human Resource Director Dennis Kaye said. "We made a special effort to reach out and get everyone we could back. We wanted our JAC family members back."

The auto supplier has become the pride of Saline's business community.

"They're an excellently managed company. We're really happy to have them," Saline Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Larry Osterling said.

Even if Toyota's struggles prove long term, JAC has little reason for concern. Jaisle doesn't like to discuss market-share numbers, saying that's "almost like jinxing things. I want to make sure we stay hungry, stay competitive and keep working like everyone's chasing us."

But he acknowledged JAC supplies products to "everyone" and "pretty much any car that's got a roof rack is ours."

JAC is dominating the North American and European markets, but Jaisle called Asia's Pacific Rim a weakness. Also, Jaisle said, JAC's expansion is beginning to make things feel "snug" at its facilities.

"As volume ramps up, we're starting to be space-confined," he said.

If these are the problems of 2010, JAC gladly will take them on.

"We are profitable, and we are trending favorably," Jaisle said. "We've gone through a roller-coaster. Last year, we went from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs."