Investing in Detroiters keeps world-class business DMS on the road to success
With the help of Wells Fargo, DMS is looking to diversify its product suite beyond the automotive industry.
In just 11 years, Detroit Manufacturing Systems, or DMS, has grown from 25 employees to nearly 1,500.
That kind of rapid progress doesn’t happen without a world-class product or service, doing what’s right for customers and employees, and a little help along the way. But what separates DMS from other companies with similar trajectories is its deep roots in its community.
Few businesses represent the soul of their city like DMS, a Detroit company that ensures the viability of one of the world’s largest motor vehicle manufacturers based in Detroit — with most of its roles filled by native Detroiters.
“Relationships are the currency of life,” said Bruce Smith, chairman and CEO of DMS. And relationships, more than anything, tell DMS’ story.
Keeping trucks trucking
Since its inception, DMS has served as the sole assembler of instrument panels for Ford’s F-150 trucks. According to CNBC, the F-Series has been the United States’ best-selling car for 41-straight years and the country’s best-selling truck for 46-consecutive years.
Like many businesses, including Ford, DMS faced unprecedented challenges from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic through much of 2022. A breakdown of the supply chain made receiving components necessary for the completion of the panels untenable.
It’s not hyperbole to say the future of the enterprise was at stake.
“With Ford being about 95% of their revenue at the time, it was tough for DMS,” said Craig Wasen, senior lead commercial relationship manager at Wells Fargo. “It was a good foundational business before the pandemic and just ran into a rough patch — managing the impact of industry-wide supply chain issues was challenging — beyond its control.”
The road to financing
As the headwinds from the pandemic began to soften, DMS charted a course from challenges to opportunities. Its new path, however, required a large infusion of cash that its previous bank scoffed at.
“We needed a better financing solution, frankly,” said Scott Cieslak, then CFO of DMS and now its executive vice president for Sales, Purchasing, and Strategy. “We were confident we’d get through that challenging business cycle. So, what we wanted was not just a local asset — and it was extremely valuable to have a Wells Fargo team essentially on-site in Detroit — but someone who could leverage the full power of a larger corporate banking relationship to assist DMS as we grew and, eventually, thrived.”
When Tim Cochran, director and business development officer for Wells Fargo, learned they’d be submitting a bid to DMS, he visited DMS’ facility in Detroit three days later, meeting with ownership and its employees.
“We wanted to really be on the ground and get to know the business and people up close,” Cochran said. “I think our eagerness to work with this company put us on the right foot.”
During a competitive process that saw several other financial institutions submit bids, Wells Fargo won the business and provided financing nearly double the amount of DMS’ previous relationship.
There was qualitative and quantitative analysis done on all of DMS’ financials, as you’d expect, but those weren’t the only differentiators for Wells Fargo.
“To be perfectly candid, highlighting how tied in Bruce (Smith) and this business is to the local community was a part of our financing discussion,” said Wasen. “When we watched him walk the factory floor, we saw an owner who knows everyone, understands the community, and what it means to be a stable employer and great place to work in Detroit.”
"Culture beats strategy all day long.” — Scott Cieslak, Executive Vice President for Sales, Purchasing, and Strategy, DMS
Keys to success
Eighteen months later, DMS has its eyes on growing in industries beyond automotive.
“Diversify, diversify, diversify — that’s what I’m reinforcing at every meeting,” said Cieslak. “In five years, we hope to have grown in our industry and diversified our portfolio to expand outside of the automotive industry, to be a value-add assembler for multiple industries and product lines. We have designs on getting into areas like electric charging stations and the medical industry, while working with the U.S. government and various contractors to leverage our assembly and engineering capabilities to provide solutions for our customers. Let’s just say we have big plans.”
One thing that won’t change at DMS is its commitment to employees, and to Detroit.
For example, DMS recently started a Leadership Academy, an internal training module for its employee base. The sessions included basic financial skills, budgeting, and general life skills. And prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, DMS was in the process of partnering with Wayne County Community College to provide basic courses to employees in a variety of fields.
Why so much investment in the people of Detroit, when most companies focus exclusively on the bottom line?
“Culture beats strategy all day long,” Cieslak said. “What makes DMS special is our people, and our people-oriented culture. We believe that if you come to work and give us your best, most authentic version of yourself, we’ll be able to succeed as a company.”