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GM Tonawanda's steadyhand; Plant manager Steve Finch has guided engine plant ?through turmoil to turnaround

General Motors was facing desperate times in 2009, and questions were swirling about the future of its Town of Tonawanda engine plant.

It all hit home for Steve Finch, a Buffalo native and plant manager of the Tonawanda facility, a cornerstone of the local auto manufacturing industry.

"I tried not to show it, but on the inside, the reality was that none of us really knew what was going to happen," Finch said.

He sized up the challenges. He knew GM was going to close plants and that the Tonawanda facility's location, outside GM's "hub" in Southeastern Michigan, might make it more vulnerable.

Finch managed the situation the best way he knew.

"The thing that I told people at that time, I can remember, is that the best thing we could do is perform," Finch said. "The only amount of influence I felt we really had was whatever the measure was – whether it was safety, quality, meeting our schedules and demand of the customers, as small it was – let's make sure every metric was as good as it could be, so that the people that were looking at where we're going to put [GM's] business in the future would want to consider this plant based on its performance."

The River Road plant ended up going through layoffs and engine phaseouts. But it survived and is now on an upswing, preparing to launch the first of two new engine lines that were announced in 2010.

Finch, a 53-year-old Clarence resident, has been at the center of it all in his more than five years as plant manager. His understated management style amid turbulent times is praised by business colleagues, who view him as a role model and a leader who has extended his reach beyond GM into community organizations. He deflects credit for the plant's endurance, complimenting United Auto Workers Local 774 for its cooperation and his staff for contributing ideas and keeping things on track.

"I like the team of people I've had to work with," Finch said. "Navigating through so many changes we've had in this plant has really put a load and strain on the workforce and on the people. So being able to help navigate through all of those changes, and ups and downs and starts and stops has been challenging but rewarding."

>Hutch-Tech to GM

Finch's path to a long career with GM began in the late 1970s, when he was recruited at Hutch-Tech for a GM co-op program. The work intrigued him.

"It was also a way for me to actually get to college," he said. "At the time, my family situation was pretty tough, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to afford to go back to school."

As part of the program, Finch worked at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant on the East Side. He performed heavy-duty tasks on the production floor, such as repeatedly lifting 15-pound tie rods. It was a job he'll never forget.

"For me, having that experience, I think, has made a big difference in my career," he said. "Because I can relate to people much better because I had that experience of working on an assembly line all day long. It's tough work."

Finch earned a degree in electrical engineering at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Michigan and started ascending the ranks at GM, working at different plants in Michigan. He observed what he liked and didn't like in how managers led. By the time he was named manager of a stamping plant, he had plenty to draw upon. Mutual respect mattered a lot to him.

"In my mind, it doesn't matter what degree you have, or what school you graduated from and all of that," he said. "It's more about, what do you know and what do you bring to the party?"

"And there are a lot of people who work on that [production] floor that may never have graduated from a college or university but know a whole lot more than I do," he said. "And it's, how do you demonstrate that respect for other people and get the most from them and work together as a team?"

Finch started his job as Tonawanda plant manager in early 2007. He welcomed the chance to return to Buffalo Niagara, but he also knew he faced a big task, given the reputation the plant had built since starting production in 1938.

>Union cooperation

Finch said he has had good working relationships with the leaders of UAW 774. He and Robert Coleman, the union's shop chairman, sometimes walk the plant floor together to chat with workers.

"Bob Coleman, he and I are friends," Finch said. "We talk on a regular basis. We know each others' families. We attend events outside the plant together. I'd say we have a good relationship from that standpoint that extends into the business aspect that gives us the ability to work together and work things out."

Developing trust makes a difference, he said. "It helps if you can have a basis for dealing with the very difficult issues that come up sometimes," he said. "Yes, we don't agree on everything and we certainly have differences of opinion. But we don't throw chairs around and holler and cuss and scream at each other. We sit down across the table from each other and talk it out."

Finch knew about the Tonawanda plant from growing up here, but he underestimated the community role that came with running it. The plant's fortunes – in jobs, investment and production – are closely watched, and the person in charge is sought after for comments on the industry.

But even in such a highly visible role, Finch is low-key.

"My job becomes more managing the team and mulling the ideas together and making sure that they get what they need in order to do their jobs, instead of me barking out directions and giving orders to everybody and telling everybody what to do," he said. "I'm not an engine expert by any extent. I think I'm an organizational relationship manager."

People who know Finch describe him as an even-keeled leader and a good listener who carefully analyzes a situation. But they say his personality should not be mistaken as passive, and they say he is decisive when the time comes to act.

"He's very effective," said Ronald Lee, plant manager of the DuPont Yerkes operation next door. "And you don't have to be noisy to be effective."

Lee describes Finch as one of the most optimistic people he knows, as well as a great coach and a mentor. "Steve talks beyond today. He talks about possibilities."

And Lee said Finch was supportive after a 2010 accident at the DuPont plant in which a contract welder was killed. "He basically knew when to call me and when not to call me, and had a keen sensitivity to what I was going through," Lee said.

Finch has taken on leadership roles apart from running the engine plant; he has served on the boards of AAA Western and Central New York, the Buffalo Urban League, and the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, where he was recently named chairman. He is also a trustee at Zion Dominion Global Ministries.
Michael Weiner, the local United Way president, calls Finch "extremely insightful and low-profile. He steps back, assesses and offers thoughtful analysis."

Finch has helped the nonprofit improve its business-planning methods, to better track the outcomes, Weiner said. Finch got United Way employees together with GM people to learn how GM does its planning, and the organization has applied those lessons.

Donald K. Boswell, president and chief executive officer of WNED, said Finch's presence has benefited the community in multiple ways.

"He's from the area," he said. "He's got a high-profile job. He's a great role model for kids who are maybe thinking of those careers in engineering and manufacturing."

The longer the region can hold on to him, the better, Boswell said. But he cannot help but wonder if Finch will move on to a higher-level job with GM outside of Buffalo Niagara, based on his track record here.

Finch has been the Tonawanda plant manager for more than five years. While Donald Rust was the Tonawanda plant manager for about 13 years, until 1996, the three plant managers who came after Rust and before Finch held the job for about five years at the most, before retiring or moving on to other GM posts.
So the question arises: How much longer might GM keep Finch in this job? "At this point, I think the company is looking to keep leadership in place and keep it kind of stable," Finch said.

Finch added that from his vantage point, there is more to be done at Tonawanda. The plant is preparing to launch a new four-cylinder engine line, with a ceremony planned for later this week. And a new V8 engine line is set to begin production in March. The two investments are worth a combined $825 million.

Once all the shifts are fully operating in 2014, employment at the plant is expected to climb to about 1,400 people, from the roughly 1,000 who work there now. The last of the plant's workers who were on layoff returned to work earlier this year.

Finch said GM has built a reputation for promoting diversity within its organization. "We certainly have a number of other African-American plant managers in the corporation, as well as high-ranking executives."
The automaker's diversity effort resonates with him.

"There's an extreme amount of value in the people leading the company being representative of the customer base that you sell to. We sell vehicles to all people. We want to make sure our leadership is representative of our constituents."?

email: mglynn@buffnews.com