The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
THE QUEST TO KICK THE CHEMICALS OUT OF FOAM
Automakers want sustainability, but they also want comfortable seats for their vehicles. That can be a challenge for suppliers.
Seat-and-interior-foam manufacturer Woodbridge, based in Mississauga, Ont., is focusing on sustainability with a process to make some of the foam carbon dioxide-neutral.
“Automakers are not prepared to give up comfort, and the focus has shifted to sustainable or renewable, not just lighter and cheaper,” said Andrew Kee, Woodbridge’s corporate scientist and director of sustainability.
“I’m guiding my team as we hunt for opportunities to displace non-sustainable chemicals and components in our products.”
Kee looks at new raw materials offered by suppliers, which his three-person team evaluate.
When a viable product is created, such as the carbon dioxide-neutral foam, Kee and members of Woodbridge’s marketing team present it to automakers and Tier 1 suppliers.
“From a technical standpoint, I am the bridge between the lab and the automakers.”
Kee, 50, has a PhD in polymer chemistry. “My father was a high school chemistry teacher, and I love chemistry and it came easy to me.
“When I came out of school, Woodbridge was doing a campaign of hiring the next generation of chemists and engineers. I started as a senior chemist and I’ve been [there] 22 years.
“I love cars and the fast-paced nature of the auto industry.”
Seat foam is challenging, and Kee has assessed many sustainable products that currently can’t be scaled up for production. Developing circular technologies that turn end-of-life materials into new ones is the ultimate goal, but accomplishing that objective with seat foam is “on the horizon, at best,” he said.
“A lot of people think sustainability is just out the tailpipe, but it’s cradle to grave. Our overarching theme is to get the CO2 footprint down in our foam.”
IT’S A TEAM EFFORT TO GET CARS TO CUSTOMERS
The COVID-19 pandemic created a chain reaction of complications for automakers.
Early on, they couldn’t deliver vehicles to dealerships when government health guidelines locked them down. More broadly — and longer lasting — the global microchip shortage continues to cut vehicle output at factories.
Bryan Leaitch, national manager of sales operations for Mazda Canada in Richmond Hill, Ont., has met those challenges, head-on. His wide-ranging job includes ordering vehicles from the auto company and getting them delivered across Canada.
“I manage a team of seven, and my average day is just connecting everything,” Leaitch said. “We have sales targets we need to hit and vehicles we have to launch. With the CX-50, we coordinated a simultaneous launch, so each of our 153 retailers got a showcase [vehicle] within a 24-hour period [of one another]. There’s a lot to do to get that.”
The team also looks after fleet customers, internal company vehicles and dealers, locating vehicles and answering questions about delivery timing.
Leaitch, 42, said he “always had a nose for business” and graduated with a degree in it. He completed a co-op position with General Motors and was then hired as a district sales manager by its financing division. Leaitch moved into Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) for a few years, and in 2011 moved to Mazda.
“Mazda didn’t have CPO, and I was hired to create, develop and launch the first-ever CPO for Canada. I also had to launch remarketing for lease vehicles. In 2015, I was ready for the next challenge and was promoted to national manager.”
It was his first time managing a team.
“I focus on inspiring my team to be brand ambassadors,” Leaitch said. “There are no titles in my meetings. I need everyone to find the best solution, and when things change rapidly we have to pivot. Everything’s in flux and that will continue for the next little while.”