The business of Mississippi automotive supplier Systems Electro Coating is making sure that the metal parts that go into cars don’t rust. But that barely scratches the surface.
Even with a substantial and successful portfolio of connected businesses under the same banner, the business of business is not just business for Systems, says company President Toni Cooley.
Systems Electro Coating, LLC, Systems IT, Inc., Systems Automotive Interiors, LLC, and Systems Consultants Associates, Inc., all “honor the outstanding quality and low-cost imperatives,” Cooley says. “We do not see them as being at cross purposes with the business being socially responsible. Because at day’s end, without a healthy, vibrant community, consumers are unable to purchase your products and services…. The community’s success ensures our success,” she says.
Cooley describes herself as being “driven by equity. So, I don’t see SEC as just making quality parts but also creating opportunity up and down the supply chain.”
Passionate about quality educational opportunity for all, jobs and workforce development especially for populations that need it the most, promoting opportunities for minorities and women, Cooley says her family-run companies embody those values.
The Systems companies began with the consultant business, founded 41 years ago by Toni’s father Bill Cooley. In time, Toni’s mother and Toni herself joined the business. “Unfortunately, now, it is just me and my dad. We lost my mom a little over a year ago,” Cooley says. “She was an integral part of the organization, seeing the best in people and causing them to be their best selves. Fortunately, my Dad and I share a similar global philosophy – one of social justice [and] equity. This was also a view shared by my mother as well.”
Systems Consultants Associates begain specializing in management training and consulting, leadership development, small and women-owned business development, program and project management, financial management, and vocational training, eventually growing to include businesses with other focuses. One of them is even a community-oriented nonprofit organization.
All of it remains a family concern, although today,Toni Cooley is most responsible for most of it. “My dad and I are close friends, so we talk quite a bit,” she says with a bit of pride. “While he is supposed to focus on the nonprofit and I, on the for-profits, lines often get blurred and we have to straighten each other out. Frankly, I attribute a large part of our success as a function of our differences.”
Systems Electro Coating, which dates back 17 years, has won the respect of an industry focused on quality and reliability, as seen by the evolution of its work with Nissan North America.
“By design, Nissan continues to be SEC’s key customer. Under the administration of Emil Hassan, the first VP over Nissan Canton, several small businesses were selected to partner with a larger supplier, learn the industry and operate in the automotive space,” Cooley recalls. “When the facility opened, we provided only eight different frame types to the Nissan facility. Over the past decade, Nissan’s confidence in our ability clearly has grown, given today SEC is the sole provider of electrocoated frames for every truck and SUV Nissan manufactures in the US. So, every time you see a Rogue, Murano, Pathfinder, Kicks, Frontier, Titan, or NV, the electrocoated frame came out of our facility in Central Mississippi.”
Today, with the goal of operating as close to 100 percent capacity as possible, SEC markets excess production capacity to other customers, including Tier 1 and Tier 2 Nissan suppliers including Matcor, Tower and Martinrea, and to other automotive customers including Ford, Mercedes, Chrysler, GM, and Honda. The company even offers rust proofing to antique cars.
Electrocoating helps extend the life of metal parts by protecting them against corrosion, so Systems clients can be any industry that uses metal in their production. “Once electrocoated, metal going through our system is black,” Cooley says. “In the past, some customers have substituted electrocoating for black paint, given it leaves the shiny coating and is generally cheaper than using black top coat paint. And, it bears noting that we have the largest electrocoating facility in the Southeast… Our electrocoating system can accommodate full size parts, like car and truck panels and full bodies.”
Systems Automotive Interiors works with another Japanese car brand, Toyota. The seven-year-old Tier 1 supplier is the sole provider of seats to Toyota Engineering & Manufacturing America’s Mississippi plant, building 200,000 units each year, Cooley says.
Cooley is responsible for running the electrocoating, seating and consultancy operations as well as Systems IT, which for the last 16 years has been an “IT training and consulting firm, specializing in technical training and cyber security,” she says. On top of that, she serves on the boards of two publically traded companies, and leads the nonprofit called the Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE).
The value of the team
Given the number of businesses under the Systems banner, keeping the workforce pulling together is critical to the success of the enterprise. Cooley says the team behind the name is important. “To me, the team is everything. The Systems companies would not exist without team members and managers. I fully recognize that I am merely a cog in a well-functioning team,” she says. “My goal is for each member of the Systems family to feel treasured and that she [or] he is on a trajectory to achieving success…
“I see all of our business efforts as harnessing the untapped talent of individuals. Whether we are providing management training and consulting, finding efficiencies in processes of organizations, teaching people a vocation, developing the leaders in an organization, building cars, electrocoating parts or honing the technical skills of IT professionals. I want our team to know more than what we do, but why we do it. We do it to extract the best out of each person we come in contact with.”
Cooley says that watching team members succeed brings her significant satisfaction. “The team makes me proud with every victory that we achieve,” she says. “For example, when our young guys achieve some success, like coming in number one in a seat building competition that involves other seat assemblers from across the nation or receiving quality or safety awards, or to see someone at one of the companies master a task that they initially couldn’t perform.
“To see the joy of success on that person’s face makes every obstacle that we might have encountered, worthwhile. Moreover, these successes tell the real story of Mississippi, helping to remove stereotypes.”
In line with her hopes of seeing Mississippi succeed, Cooley says that she considers herself part of a team larger than the organizational chart of the Systems companies. “Community is team away from the work space,” she says. “I view myself as an integral part or team member of the local, state, national and international community. So, as a team member, I have a responsibility to help each team/community succeed.”
Given the stereotypes sometimes associated with her state, Cooley said she wants Systems to paint a different picture.
“I love for others to know we are Mississippians, mainly because they expect the worst of us, based on some archaic notion. It warms my heart when the team performs well.”
Sidebar: The Center for Social Entrepreneurship
CSE demonstrates Toni Cooley’s commitment to the community in which Systems does business. Cooley describes CSE this way:
Vision: CSE has aided in creating a well-engaged, diverse community, known as the iVillage, with aesthetically pleasing homes, prosperous homes, and an excellent, educational system
Mission: The mission of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE) is to enhance the quality of life of all people in our targeted communities with a focus on community engagement, economic development, education and housing.
Purpose: A proof of concept designed to visibly enhance the quality of life of people in a 13-block West Jackson area, that CSE calls “the iVillage.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of Southern Automotive Alliance magazine