John Irwin, Automotive News Canada
December 2nd, 2020
Canada’s supply chain gained respect in an increasingly complex and globalized landscape, thanks in large part to Don Walker, say his colleagues and competitors.
As CEO of Magna International Inc., Walker focused on expansion, which helped give suppliers credibility and fueled their growth, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.
Magna employs 152,000 people in 27 countries, according to its website.
The company’s explosive growth under Walker’s leadership proved to be invaluable for other Canadian suppliers, said Volpe, who called him a friend and mentor.
“For many other Canadian companies, that was the guiding block to get others into different markets. That’s Don’s vision.”
Volpe said Walker’s retirement at the end of 2020 will mark an “end of an era.” During his time as CEO, the Aurora, Ont.-based company expanded to become the world’s third-largest auto parts supplier by annual sales. “I think we all knew sooner or later [Walker’s retirement] was coming. The only surprise might have been the date,” Volpe said.
WALKER SEES THE ‘BIG PICTURE’
Rob Wildeboer, chairman of parts supplier and Magna competitor Martinrea International Inc., said Walker is a “loyal Canadian” who “always saw the big picture.”
Martinrea is the third-largest Canada-based supplier by annual sales to automakers in 2019, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
Wildeboer said Walker helped to persuade policymakers in Canada of the importance of creating and retaining auto manufacturing jobs domestically, especially during the Great Recession that drove Chrysler and General Motors into bankruptcy more than a decade ago.
“In 2008, there were a lot of people in this country, including in Ontario, asking why we should support a smokestack industry,” said Wildeboer.
“There was a public-perception issue we were fighting against. But today, a lot of people are saying it’s important to make things and it’s important to make things here. We see the benefits of it when in a pandemic, when a number of companies including automotive companies jumped in to help make ventilators and masks and [personal protective equipment].”
Walker serves as chairman of the Canadian Automotive Partnership Council (CAPC), comprised of auto executives and leaders from government, labour and retail to address issues of concern to the auto industry.
Wildeboer, a CAPC member, said he has worked with Walker on a host of issues, most recently on those related to the pandemic. He said he and Walker helped to come up with industry wide safety protocols that allowed for a safe return to manufacturing amid the pandemic.
“Both our companies and ourselves as individuals have a very singular focus on keeping this industry healthy and having this industry be healthy in Ontario and Canada,” Wildeboer said.
While Walker is stepping away from Magna, he suggested that he would likely remain in the auto industry in some capacity. He told Automotive News Canada that he would be “looking at some new technologies” and would work on projects he is passionate about.
But, he stressed he would not be seeking another operating role or a spot on a public company’s board.
A longtime critic of what he sees as the country’s overly burdensome red tape, Walker said he has ideas for the “future prosperity” of Canada and its auto industry.
“The parts manufacturers can actually be quite healthy but will be healthier if our end customers [assembly plants] are located in Canada or… Michigan.”
Volpe said he could see Walker taking on a “godfather position” for the Canadian auto industry.
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” Volpe said. “I think he feels a certain ownership over the future prosperity of the sector. The funny thing about Don is, here’s someone who runs one of the top three supplier companies in the world, but if I call him, he’ll pick up the phone. I don’t think that’s going to change.”
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