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Job comes with a challenge: winning GM diesel engine line Tonawanda plant competes with others for GM investment

A job at General Motors means the end of your worries, they used to say.

That's not how it feels for Steven C. Finch, a soft-spoken man who just moved into the corner office at GM's Tonawanda Engine Plant on the Niagara River.

A Buffalo native who spent the past 30 years climbing GM management ranks in Michigan, Finch, 48, returned home last week to head the plant during a rough period for U.S. automakers.

In his previous job he headed a Flint, Mich., engine plant with 600 jobs. That's about one-third the employment at Tonawanda, a 130-acre complex that puts motors into everything from Saturns to Hummers.

"This is nice," he said, looking out over the sparkling river. "In Flint my last office was actually in a converted trailer."

No GM office is very comfortable these days. The No. 1 automaker confronts sharply falling sales -- down 9 percent last year -- and a showdown with labor when the autoworkers' contract expires in September.

The bumpy outlook increases the pressure on Finch to win the new product for which Tonawanda is competing. To its aging family of four gasoline engines, the plant hopes to add an exotic new cousin -- a diesel motor, probably for pickups and SUVs coming in 2008 or '09. With that job would come a $300 million investment from GM.

"New business doesn't mean we're going to have more people . . . it means we get to keep what we have," said Peter Masich, president of United Auto Workers Local 774 at Tonawanda.

He said he's glad that the new plant manager still has a long career ahead of him.

"He's young enough, I know he's looking for the future -- that's important because if he does well, we do well," Masich said.

Members of Local 774 approved a "shelf agreement" last fall that changes work rules in the plant in return for a new product. Masich wouldn't discuss the changes.

The community is also on board the diesel bandwagon, ready to fork over $8 million in tax breaks. In December the Erie County Industrial Development Agency approved the tax incentive, contingent on the investment from GM.

For Finch, luring the diesel to Tonawanda -- one of nine GM engine plants in North America -- is only the first of his worries. If successful, he'll have to find a way to produce it.

"The whole technology behind diesel engines is different than gasoline," he says. "It's not just making a few tweaks; it's a completely different beast."

So he hopes that the decision from corporate higher-ups comes soon. "The longer you take to make the decision, the shorter amount of time you have to put it in."

>A Hutch-Tech grad

With his crisp white shirt and calm voice, Finch doesn't show the pressure. It was only his second day on the job when he took time out to meet with a reporter. He spent the New Year's holiday relocating here from Flint, a move that puts him back in the midst of a large family that includes four siblings still in the region.

Though he grew up in Buffalo, his career took him to Michigan before he had a car to drive, so now he's not always sure how to get around, he says with a laugh.

"I was very fortunate -- a person from GMI (General Motors Institute) came to my high school and recruited me -- at that time they were really focusing on minorities and females." His performance at Hutch Tech got Finch into GM's co-op program, where he could earn his way through college at the institute while working for the automaker.

"That was a great opportunity for me -- my mom had passed when I was 14, I had other brothers and sisters in the house -- it was kind of tough financially."

His first GM job was at Chevy Gear and Axle on Buffalo's East Side, a plant now owned by American Axle & Manufacturing. There he wrestled with steel parts as a co-op student in 1976.

"I remember one job in particular was the tie-rod bolt press," he says, grasping and heaving an imaginary tie rod with both hands. "Each one weighed about 15 pounds; you had to pick them up, put it in the press, put the bolts in." He doesn't remember how many times an hour, "but it was way too many -- I remember being pretty sore, pretty tired after work."

Finch graduated from GMI, now called Kettering University, in 1981 with a degree in electrical engineering. Since then, the heavy lifting has been the kind you do in shirt and tie. His resume displays a wide range of jobs -- he oversaw truck production and then headed information systems for the metal stamping division before running engine plants in Flint and now Tonawanda.

"I've had a pretty interesting career in GM," he says, having worked in GM's assembly, metal stamping, and powertrain divisions. "Interspersed in there were some assignments at headquarters."

>Engine making evolves

To preserve jobs for the 1,900 people working at Tonawanda, Finch prescribes the same measures as plant managers before him -- sharper quality and higher productivity. The plant has a good reputation -- it ranks first among GM engine plants for productivity, according to the influential Harbour Report -- but that doesn't cancel the need to improve, Finch says.

"Even as we get more competitive, the world gets more competitive -- Toyota's not sitting still, neither are any [others.]"

Toyota's vehicle sales rose last year while GM's fell 9 percent, the steepest decline of Detroit's Big Three. GM said some of the drop resulted from fewer sales to rental fleets, a low-profit business. Still, fewer vehicles means fewer engines, a worrisome trend for Tonawanda.

In the longer run, there is also a question about the longevity of the plant's conventional motors. Gasoline-fueled technology won't rule the road forever, as oil costs rise and drivers seek fuel-efficient alternatives. Tonawanda makes the 2.2 liter "Ecotec" for small cars like the Saturn Ion; a V-6 for sedans including the Chevy Malibu and Pontiac G6, and in-line 4- and 5-cylinder engines for compact trucks and the Hummer H3. It also produces a big, 8.1 liter V-8 mainly for boats and electric generators that also shows up in the commercial-sized trucks Chevy Kodiak and GMC Topkick.

U.S. automakers are gearing up to offer diesel engines in the next few years to capitalize on their higher efficiency, analysts said. The EPA lowered limits for sulfur in diesel fuel last year, which should make it easier for diesel vehicles to meet federal pollution limits.

"GM is in the development stage now with diesel designs, [with] one that would compete in the light-duty pickup market," said Paul Lacy, manager of technical research at Global Insight in Troy, Mich. GM, Ford and Dodge all have diesel-option pickups heading to showrooms in two or three years, he said.

Tonawanda Engine has stretched its capabilities before, even making 16-cylinder aircraft engines for the military in the 1940s and '50s. Today, some of its six-cylinder motors can burn an ethanol-gasoline mix.

But a diesel would be, as Finch says, a new animal. Diesels use higher compression than gas burners, changing their underlying physics. They even sound different, a factor that has dampened their sales in the U.S. in the past, Finch says. Yet "in other countries, Europe, almost anywhere other than the U.S., diesels are a major player in the powertrain."

Finch said he's confident that the site on the Niagara, where GM has made engines for 70 years, is up to the new task.

"I've always been impressed with Tonawanda being such a large facility and having diverse products," he said. The complex is known to hit objective after objective, he said. "I'm really thrilled to be part of this team and work with folks who are doing it, and have been doing it well for quite a while."


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