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Published: Sunday, 4/2/2006

Blunt-talking exec in tight spot

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Mike Burns has decentralized operations and has brought in several managers from outside, in contrast to past CEOs. Mike Burns has decentralized operations and has brought in several managers from outside, in contrast to past CEOs.
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From the start, Mike Burns never minced words about cost cutting at Dana Corp.

Toledo's biggest firm was decentralized for decades, and reversing that two years ago was the new chief executive's first major target.

The directive was largely praised by industry analysts, but resisted by many Dana employees.

Likewise, his move to outsource the Fortune 500 firm's human resources administration, sending jobs to Costa Rica and elsewhere, was not liked internally.

Also, some questioned the closing of more facilities nationally, moving more factory work to Mexico, and ultimately the filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month.

The company leader has little time to look back.

"You can't look in the rear-view mirror at what you've done in the past," Mr. Burns, 54, told The Blade last week. "You have to deal with the situation the way it is, not how you want it to be."

He added: "Sometimes that bothers people, because they want to look at the way it was. That's definitely a recipe for failure."

A look at the man leading Dana, which lost more than $1.6 billion last year, finds a no-nonsense executive who has quietly installed new people into higher management posts since his start in March, 2004.

Some describe him as decisive, personable, task-oriented, experienced, dedicated, low key, and unpretentious. Some use the term demanding, and some say he has dismantled the so-called Dana style of management, which included promoting from within.

His new managers are largely from outside the firm.

Has he made the right moves?

No executive would have been able to keep Dana out of bankruptcy, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

"Dana needs to hang in there with Mike, and he'll lead them out," Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Burns has what it takes to lead Dana, but a rapid convergence of forces, such as increased steel costs and decreased Big Three market share, was beyond his control, he said.

"I think what he's finding, like a lot of competent executives, is he got caught in the perfect storm," he said.

Mr. Burns' background of 34 years at General Motors Corp. was highly coveted when the Dana board hired him to succeed Joe Magliochetti, who died after a brief illness during an unsolicited takeover attempt by ArvinMeritor Inc.

In the Dana chief's last two at GM, he led two financially troubled units, as vice president and general manager for two years of Delphi Delco Electronics Systems in Kokomo, Ind., and as president of GM Europe for more than five years.

In Europe, he instituted cost trimming to save more than $500 million a year and vowed to return the business unit to profitability.

But two years after he left and a half-dozen years since the unit last had a profit, GM Europe has yet to make a dime despite more cuts.

Mr. Burns said some of his moves are starting to show results. But European auto analyst Stephen Cheetham, of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC in London, said GM Europe's financial results speak for themselves.

"I'm sure he did the right stuff," he said. "The question is whether he did enough."

When Mr. Burns took the helm at Dana, the firm was breathing a sigh of relief about escaping a takeover but was on a troubled path.

His actions to trim costs didn't take hold fast enough as the U.S. auto industry careened in the face of foreign competition, increased costs, and tightened financing.

Once a darling of Wall Street and automakers alike, Dana lost cash liquidity and missed an interest payment on a bond issue, forcing it to seek protection from creditors in bankruptcy.

It also late last year restated its profits, dropping them by $44 million over five years, and revealed another major round of cost cutting.

Although the company still will pursue Mr. Burns' goals, such as increasing sales outside North America, it also could renegotiate labor contracts, change employee benefits, move more work outside the United States, sell operations, and make other changes as part of the reorganization process in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York.

Critics question whether Mr. Burns filed bankruptcy too soon.

But the Indiana native and son of a farm equipment dealer said Dana chose that course rather than hobbling along with poor credit, which some companies have tried.

"This has got the basis for a very good business, but you have to change to make it sustainable," Mr. Burns told The Blade. "There's no question that we did what we had to do. We did the right thing."

As for changes in his management team, he declined to discuss individuals but said the company has a good mix of people who came up internally and those from beyond the 4500 Dorr St. headquarters.

Mr. Burns said he is interested in making a business more successful, and he professes to be harder on himself than on others. "I'm tenacious," said the married father of two grown sons. "I hate to lose. I expect a lot out of people, but I'm willing to work with people to make that happen."

He's also interested in the community, said Robert Bell, president and chief executive of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, which has long been supported by Dana.

The Dana CEO, who lives in a $1 million house in Sylvania Township, joined the symphony's board in December even as troubles at the firm mounted.

He also is chairman of the Jamie Farr Scholarship Advisory Committee this year, part of the job for the chairman-elect of the annual women's professional golf tournament held at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania.

Mr. Burns said he plans to fulfill community obligations.

"We're pleased that he has not in any way backed away from his commitment to the board," Mr. Bell said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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