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For the Buffalo Niagara region, the real news in Delphi Corp.'s recent sector shake-up was in what didn't happen to the corporation's thermal business.

The Thermal Division is based in Lockport, was not put into a new sector that Delphi created for businesses that it said aren't "core" to its operations or are failing to hit targets.

For a business unit that has felt considerable pressure from its corporate parent in Troy, Mich., to improve, that was good news.

"I think it's a definite show of confidence that Delphi has reflected for how they see Delphi Thermal," said Ronald M. Pirtle, president of Delphi's thermal business. "That's in contrast to the way it would have been viewed certainly two years ago."

The businesses that landed in the new "non-core" sector included Delphi Corp.'s generator business -- which it plans to shut down -- and its instrumentation business, which it has tried to sell.

Delphi Thermal was instead grouped with businesses it has more in common with, such as dynamics and propulsion.

The sector switch might not mean anything to people other than Delphi employees, executives and analysts. But it was a confidence boost for the Lockport complex, which, despite a shrinking job count, remains the region's largest manufacturing employer.

About 4,400 people work at the complex, which consists of the thermal unit's global headquarters, research and development operations, and a manufacturing plant.

To measure Delphi Harrison's local impact another way: the employees and the company this year donated more than $500,000 to the Eastern Niagara United Way. That represented about half of the organization's fundraising goal.

Pirtle said the Lockport plant's improvement plan, which was implemented in November 2001, continues to show gains. Plant and union leaders put together the plan after the Lockport site was labeled "troubled" in summer 2001.

But he stressed that the pressure to improve isn't off, just because the thermal business didn't go into the "non-core" sector.

"We're not where we need to be," Pirtle said. "It's very important that our employees and everyone in the community understand that Delphi Harrison Thermal is improving, but it's not over. There's still a significant amount of work to be done."

Paul Siejak, president of United Auto Workers Local 686 Unit 1, said the workers know what's expected of them.

"They continue to work hard," said Siejak, who was re-elected unopposed earlier this year. "They know they are an economic engine here in Western New York."

Siejak said the workers turned in strong productivity numbers in October. But he said they also have to think ahead to 2003 -- when Delphi's labor contract with the UAW expires -- and later years, to secure business for the plant on future automobile platforms.

"It's critical for us to go into national negotiations as a moneymaking operation," Siejak said.

Pirtle estimated that from 2001 to 2005, Delphi will invest about $150 million in the Lockport operations.

The local plant is handling new products such as air conditioning systems for GM's family of large trucks, and air conditioning and powertrain cooling systems for the Saturn Ion. Other product launches are on the way within the next two years, he said.

With these new investments and products come additional needs for worker training, Pirtle said, and Delphi Thermal is looking for outside help to keep its costs in check.

One such area: power costs. Delphi Harrison is closely following the New York Power Authority's relicensing process, Pirtle said, since inexpensive power is vital to operating here.

"That's one of the advantages that we've had here, and that's an advantage we've got to sustain," he said. "It helps us to overcome some of the (competitive) disadvantages."

Barring a major downturn in the economy, Pirtle said Delphi Thermal plans no layoffs at the Lockport complex. The job count is expected to continue to drop in 2003, through retirements and normal attrition. Since November 2001, more than 750 employees have retired from the plant.

Delphi Corp.'s chairman, president and chief executive officer, J.T. Battenberg III, recently paid a visit to the Lockport plant. Union and company officials alike said they were encouraged by what they heard from him.

"He was impressed with our quality, how we turned around things," Siejak said.

"To paraphrase him, what we're getting (from Battenberg) is, the team is really making some great progress," Pirtle said. "That's really good. You're proving that in fact, you can deliver on your plans and you're changing your company.

"On the other hand, the message is very clear: We're not there yet," Pirtle said. "We've got to keep going. There's confidence that we can make this business be what it needs to be. There's confidence locally, and there's confidence out in Michigan."


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