Reporting Jeff Gilbert
DETROIT — (WWJ) For Michigan’s new auto advisor, success is all about sustainability.
“For me, the really great success will be in 20 to 30 years time, to see that Michigan’s automobile industry has substantially grown and repositioned itself,” said Nigel Francis, who is following up a 29 year career in the auto industry with a new role–helping grow Michigan’s auto industry, as the first leader of Michigan’s new Automotive Industry Office.
In a wide ranging interview, Francis said he sees his job as attracting new auto investments in Michigan, and helping both current and new auto businesses grow.
Even though the state has worked to cut red tape, Francis says he knows that businesses can find dealing with the government difficult.
“The still need a guide through the maze of paperwork,” he said. “And, typically, for a smaller company, outright financial help is probably the most useful thing you can give them. Whereas, in the larger companies, particularly larger profitable companies, simplification of taxation can be a very useful tool for them.”
Francis is a trained engineer, and has spent most of his career in product development. Most recently he was with Tata technologies. But he’s worked for both major automakers, and small start ups.
The U.K. native moved to Michigan 15 years ago, and decided this is where he wanted to stay.
“For me, Michigan is at the top of the automotive industry. It’s the center of the automotive industry, for me, globally, for lots of reasons related to the talent base, the companies that are here.”
Francis says Michigan can remain at the center of a changing auto industry, one that’s more focused on electronics and on improving fuel economy.
It’s also an industry that is more global. Francis will be traveling to the Frankfurt Auto Show this month, and will head to China next month. He says the trips are about building relationships, and telling others about Michigan.
The role of auto advisor is a new one for Michigan. But it’s one that state government officials say is needed.
“As we develop strategies to grow business in Michigan, we recognize that we need to have a way to reach senior level executives in one of our most important industries,” said MEDC President and CEO Michael A. Finney. “It was crucial to bring on someone like Nigel who has both entrepreneurial and large corporate experience together with global cultural and industry specific awareness. We feel fortunate to have someone who is so motivated and qualified to take on this leadership role in understanding the needs and challenges of the automotive industry.”
As somebody who’s new on the job, Francis says he is going to spend a lot of time learning those needs and challenges.
“One of my roles is advice, and that’s not policy making,” he said. “There are plenty of people doing policy making.”
The need, says Francis, is somebody who can connect government and industry in a way that will help Michigan’s most important industry continue to grow.
“What we can do within the MEDC and within my evolving responsibilities is to act as a bridge between the customers in Michigan–which are the companies, for me, in automotive–and the policymakers to ensure that the policies are aligned with the industrial base to allow the industrial base to grow sustainability into the future.”
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