In the competitive world of the automotive industry, the team at WKW (Walter Klein Wuppertal) Erbsloeh doesn’t bat an eye at their rivals. The company’s president says the reason is simple: WKW, also known as WKW Automotive, has spent approximately 176 years making and supplying quality aluminum and steel products for industry.
“Our target customers have traditionally been in the past the higher end vehicles like Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar. Those are our biggest customers, especially in Europe,” says Todd Green, company president. Ford is also on that list.
In terms of specific models, WKW sees its work in the BMW X5, and the upcoming X7, the Buick LaCrosse, the Chevrolet Cruze and Impala, the Cadillac ATS, the Volkswagen Passat and Atlas, and the Mercedes C-Class, GLE-Class, and GLS-Class.
Green says it’s common for higher-end automotive manufacturers to lean towards aluminum because it’s a more expensive product and it lasts longer. “Aluminum, this particular metal, it has some of the properties of steel in that it’s very hard but it’s also very light,” he says. “Many vehicles are moving away from steel to aluminum every chance they get because the whole game, as far as the automotive industry is concerned, is in the fuel efficiency, the gas mileage.” OEMS “need a vehicle as light as possible, but it still needs to be safe,” he says.
The Tier 1 supplier originally started in Wuppertal, Germany, where the extrusion plant still resides. In 2006 WKW opened its first plant in the United States, choosing Pell City, Alabama as the home base. The Pell City location includes the service facility, two warehouses, and the actual assembly factory, making the entire facility total approximately 300,000 square feet with about 400 people currently employed.
Taking the extruded aluminum supplied by its sister company in Wuppertal, the Pell City plant creates automotive window trim and roof rails through several processes that include bending, polishing out imperfections, and warping the aluminum extrusion to its desired form. On average, the factory produces 10 thousand to 20 thousand units per day. “There’s no way for you to know [the work that goes into it] unless you work in the industry,” says Green.
While WKW has branched out to other areas such as Troy, Michigan, Pell City has been a successful location for the company. Green credits this to the continued growth of the automotive industry in the south, something he says is great for the southern states as a whole. “If you look at the state of Alabama, we’re the fifth largest automotive producer in the United States now in terms of the number of vehicles that have been produced,” he says.
Alabama is currently home to Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Honda, and Toyota, with a Mazda Toyota joint venture under construction. “Those facilities are pumping out well over a million vehicles per year and with that, as they grow the supply base grows,” Green says. “The Tier 1 suppliers grow, the Tier 2s, so it creates more and more jobs for the economy in the state of Alabama.”
Green considers it “critically important” for Alabama and its southern neighbors to focus on providing the proper knowledge and training it takes to be successful in the automotive industry. “I think we’re doing a much better job at the high school level, at the junior college – we have a really good community college system that does a really good job of pumping out experienced folks that we want to get into all of our various plants and operations,” he says. “I think we’re doing much better as a business community to try to work with our junior colleges and our high schools to… give prospective students the opportunity to learn what we’re about in automotive.”
Green came to the Pell City plant just over three years ago. Then, he says, it was a less than ideal system with which to work. “I’ve kind of made a living here turning around troubled plants for several years. This is the third plant I’ve turned around,” he explains.
One of the ways Green altered the plant, according to 10-year veteran employee Erica Davis, is by making teamwork a top priority. “Some of us have been here since the beginning and when Todd came in, he was literally a breath of fresh air,” Davis says, adding that Green is a true “team leader.”
Since Green came aboard, WKW started a program that pays for their engineers to go to Jefferson State Community College to earn a manufacturing systems associates degree. The program started two years ago, with the first set of graduates planning to return to WKW. Davis says it will provide a more “advanced knowledge” of the machines and how they work.
“In the end it’s all about the team,” she says.
“We win together as a team and we lose together as a team. Losing is not an option,” Green says.
Green says the future is bright for WKW. “Right now we’re in the middle of the BMW launch of the new vehicles they’re building,” he says. “We also have the facelift, which means there are changes to the exterior of the model, for the Volkswagen Passat. That production starts January .”
WKW recently won the AAMA Supplier of the Year Award in both 2018 and 2019. Green says the awards are a testament to the good work going on at the Pell City unit. “[Winning the award] showed all of us coming together as a team to make this happen,” he says. “In our daily business teamwork is essential. Whether it is cross departmental problem solving, the give and take of decision-making between individual department heads, or supporting each other during crunch time. We all come together as a team to make this happen every single day. WKW Automotive is not about any one individual but about all of us working here. We are WKW Automotive.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of Southern Automotive Alliance magazine