The sun was trying to poke through the clouds on a typical Tuesday spring afternoon in southeastern Michigan when I drove into the parking lot of the offices of SL America Corporation located in twin side-by-side one-story buildings in light industrial area in Sterling Heights.
Seung Ho Yang, Director of Overseas Sales and Young Yun Kwak, Executive Director introduced themselves and began their story of their company, SL Corporation, a Korean-owned interior auto parts supplier. Their main client is General Motors, but work for Hyundai and Kia as well. Their story is one of everyday American men and women around the US. A common story, especially in this area known to be the home of the GM Tech Center, the largest employer in Macomb County. However, has become much less common as our local economy was built on American car companies and their unsung suppliers. The crisis in the American auto industry hit this area hard and small to mid-size suppliers like this one, have had to think much differently or go broke, as the market for automobiles is simply, global. Sterling Heights is a practical location for a small, flexible ‘supply partner’ as they call themselves. There are some real differences in this 12 year old Korean-American outpost than in suppliers of the past.
“We try very hard to have an honest, trustworthy partnership that is dedicated to a long-term relationship,” Young Yun confidently stated about his feelings for his largest customer. “If we have troubles during the day, we can send them to Korea and it is solved by the morning,” pointing out a large benefit to doing business with a company located on both sides of the globe. “We are always looking for solutions”.
And that seemed to be what they were very good at doing in their North American Engineering Center. Exterior lighting; headlamps and tail lamps, shifters and petal boxes are what they manufacture, and relationships are what they cultivate.
“When the [SL Corporation] team was in the US looking for a home for their offices, Alabama and Tennessee were the locations chosen for our factories. Michigan made sense [for the engineering offices] with GM being right [down the road].” Young Yun commented. “We like it here very much.”
“We have 800 employees in Tennessee”, Seung Ho explained. Young Yun went on, “And employ mainly short term workers from Korea to get everything set up. We like to hire locally as much as we can. It is sometimes too complicated to get short term work Visas from Korea, and culturally a big shift for those families.”
They’ve been voted ‘Best Supplier’ by GM from 2005-2011, an honor granted to only 80 suppliers out of a pool of 20,000. That is a high bar to chin to for any organization and they carry their accomplishments humbly but confidently and plan to continue that trend far into the future.
Young Yun was pleased with the Free Trade Agreement [FTA] and said the 2.5% tax benefit was helpful for a mid-sized corporation like theirs, although he has not seen a huge impact on the bottom line. When asked for ideas of how Michigan could be a more attractive home for Korean corporations to invest, Young Yun had some ideas.
“It is hard for families who are placed here temporarily to find the financial loans they need to get set up, to buy or rent a home. We’d also like to find university or community college to partner with to create both training for all of our employees and internships in the kind of work we do here.”
Both ideas that are solid ideas for growth for America, good for Korea and especially good for our anemic local communities. With more strong corporations like SL American Corporation, investing in our local economies with visionary leaders like these, southeastern Michigan will soon be a vibrant business community once again.
SL America Corporation
5543 Gatewood Dr. Sterling Heights, MI 48310
Phone: (586) 731-8511
Written by Jen Hilzinger
Michigan Korean Weekly