By: AMY WILSON on March 7, 2005
Original Article: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS., VOL. 79 ISSUE 6137

Dateline: DETROIT —

A management upheaval is unfolding at the supplier that operates the Ford GT assembly plant.

Rich Rinke, the 43-year-old COO at Saleen Inc., is out. CEO Steve Saleen fired Rinke in late January and several other employees in late February.

Saleen Inc. is best known as a West Coast Mustang tuner. But with its experience building the Saleen S7 supercar, the company was tapped by Ford Motor Co. to assemble the GT sports car.

Steve Saleen and Ford say the management changes are not related to the GT program or any of the quality glitches that the sports car has experienced. They also say the changes have not affected GT production, which is rolling again after a seven-week shutdown because of a recalled part.

In an interview last week, Steve Saleen downplayed the significance of the shakeup. “The facts are we made some management changes,” he said. “None of them affected the GT.”

But the terminations did involve employees who had been involved with the GT project.

GT players
Saleen hired Rinke, who is part of a Detroit-area car dealership family, in 2002 after Ford executives recommended him.

Rinke supervised Saleen’s conversion of a former door factory in Troy, Mich., into a mini-assembly plant. The 180,000-square-foot plant paints and assembles every GT, a five-day process. The plant recently began building the Saleen Mustang. Saleen ships the GTs to Ford’s Wixom, Mich., assembly plant for installation of the engine, transmission, seats and interior trim.

Steve Saleen acknowledges that Rinke did a good job setting up the Troy plant. Early in the program, Rinke even worked on prototype GT body panels in his home workshop.

Rinke said that he was fired in part because he requested a medical leave to deal with a family illness. Rinke also said Steve Saleen was punishing him for a dispute over business practices.

Steve Saleen declined to explain why he fired Rinke and several other employees. On Feb. 23, Saleen fired Joe Tori, the general manager of his GT assembly plant.

Tori, 47, worked for Saleen for a year and took over supervision of the assembly plant last fall. Ford executive Hau Thai-Tang called Tori “one of the key guys” at the plant.

Tori said that Steve Saleen told him he was fired in part for failure to meet financial and production goals on the GT project. Tori said his team had hit all of those targets.

New manager
In the wake of the firings, Saleen promoted Brian Walsh, general manager of its Irvine, Calif., plant, to oversee the Troy plant. Walsh started at Saleen less than a year ago.

Before joining Saleen, Walsh had no automotive manufacturing experience. But Walsh has managed production lines in other industries, most recently at appliance maker Thermador, Saleen said.

Thai-Tang, director of Ford’s Special Vehicle Team with oversight of the GT program, said Ford is comfortable with Steve Saleen’s management abilities and the team still in Troy.

“I’m interested in the results and not so much who’s back there in the kitchen stirring the pot,” Thai-Tang said. “That’s Steve’s call.”

Ford has some employees in the plant to monitor Saleen’s daily GT production. After its recall-related shutdown, the plant resumed maximum production capacity during the week of Feb. 28 — ahead of schedule. The plant produces nine GTs a day.

Tori said Saleen’s future with Ford’s niche car projects depends on its management of the GT program.

He said: “Opportunities like the GT don’t come along that often.”