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GM career path leads to Lockport

When William Tiger was living in Florida and thinking about where to go to college, he nearly tossed out information about the General Motors Institute in Michigan.

A guidance counselor who had grown up in Lockport suggested otherwise. He had family members who had worked at the GM plant in Niagara County, then called Harrison Radiator, so he knew what the automaker had to offer.

Tiger wound up earning an engineering degree at GMI and embarked on a career with GM. This summer, he was named plant manager of the Lockport facility, now called GM Components Holdings.

Naturally, Tiger shared the news with his now-retired guidance counselor. “He’s just kind of thrilled that I’m the plant manager,” Tiger said.

Tiger may be new to his job, but he grasps the importance of the Lockport plant, which employs nearly 1,600 hourly and salaried workers. Last year, the Upper Mountain Road plant made more than 11.5 million heating and cooling products, supplying an array of GM vehicles. The facility has endured for generations, through ups and downs and name changes.

Tiger has an intriguing personal history. He is part Native American, and his father was tribal chairman for the Miccosukees in Florida. In the 1950s, when the federal government wouldn’t grant recognition to the tribe, Tiger’s father was part of a delegation that traveled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, who welcomed the chance to spotlight their struggle. Recognition of the tribe by the U.S. government soon followed.

Tiger is a plant leader now but hasn’t lost his love for engineering. He loves getting ideas from the workers on the plant floor, and said he inherited a solid working relationship with United Auto Workers Local 686.

Tiger is part of GM’s Native American Cultural Network, promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He talks to young Native Americans who might need a nudge toward a career at GM, just like he did back in Florida.

Q: What are your early impressions of the Lockport plant?

A: I love the engagement of the people. They know what they’re doing, they understand the importance of what they’re doing.

Every person I’ve met, they all want to make sure they’re doing better and the plant’s getting better, performing better. And the union-management relationship is really good here. The plant’s obviously got a historic past. It went through some rough times. They’re coming out the end of that. … We’ve got a lot of work to do to continue to make the plant more competitive. But there is no doubt that everyone understands that is in the best interest of the plant and that’s the right thing to do for the long-term viability of the plant.

Q: You’ve worked at other GM plants. What makes this plant stand out?

A: There’s a couple. One is just the history of the plant. The Components Group (plants) are the ones that actually bid for work and compete directly with outside companies. There’s other companies that GM can buy radiators and coolers and HVAC units from, and they do buy some from other companies. We compete with them, we need to be competitive with them.

That certainly keeps our focus on cost and efficiency and quality, because GM is looking for world-class quality, and we’ve got to be competitive on costs, and we want to be the best on that. Because if you are relying on whether they’re going to carve off a little for us, it’s tough to have a future that way. You want to be the best at what you do, whether it’s the design of it, the manufacturing of it, the quality of it, so this plant can start growing again.

And personally, I look at manufacturing and it’s important for us to be here. Not just for us to have a job, but for this plant to be thriving here in this community. The community needs it. The people who work here need it. And the kids are going to need it. You need manufacturing, and you need it here.

Q: Do you see prospects for the plant to get new work?

A: Absolutely. It’s kind of interesting, the other thing that’s different from a lot of the GM plants, say if you’re an engine plant or a transmission plant, typically when you get an engine or transmission model, you know that design is going to be around 10, 15, maybe 20 years. Twenty would be long these days, but 10 is not uncommon. For what we make, because so much of it is impacted by the shape of the vehicle and the internal design to just how much space you’ve got left to fit everything, our product typically turns over in a five-year type time frame. Some a little bit shorter, some a little bit longer, but in that type of time frame. So we’re constantly bidding for work, putting the bids in and getting awarded work. The next couple months will actually be very telling for this plant. And I think we’re in really good shape to win new work.

Q: What do you do with GM’s Native American Cultural Network?

A: We’ve had some success with it. And for years, we didn’t have so much success, because we were just kind of showing up at a career fair and saying, ‘We’ve got a job.’ Relationships are really important in the Native American community, so we’ve been working on developing relationships with the students, with the schools, with the organizations, so they know who we are when we show up, and what we do, and frankly, try to hire some more local kids. If you try to get somebody from Arizona to move to Michigan, if they get another offer, they’re probably very likely to stay closer to home.

Q: Does it help for them to meet someone like you who has made a career at GM?

A: You’ve got a GM executive coming in to talk to you who’s a Native American, that’s a good role model, they appreciate that. What probably makes as much of as an impact is talking about what GM does on the environmental side, all the different kinds of things that GM does and here’s how you can be involved. It’s not just engineering, there’s a social responsibility aspect of it that most of the kids have no idea about. … Their eyes just kind of light up.