Global Parts Guru

ake away the automotive industry and Detroit would crumble, and it would have a major impact around the world.

Byron Foster gets that, and he lives it every day. Not in Detroit, but for Detroit-and the world. The Johnson Controls Senior Group Vice President for North American Operations ensures the finely-oiled wheel that supplies more than $3 billion of original manufacturing auto parts to national suppliers keeps rolling all the way from Dusseldorf, Germany, where he resides. The native Detroiter understands the impact the autos have on the city and its future, and he strategically works to build and maintain client relationships across the water. He has sweet memories of Detroit and shares a few of them with BLAC.

You were born and raised in Detroit.  What are some of your fondest memories of the city?

I grew up on the northwest side of Detroit.  I went to Higginbotham Elementary School and Beaubien Middle School and I spent my first two years at Cass Tech High. We lived a great life in Detroit.  My mother was a long-time employee at General Motors and my father was in retail most of his life. I mostly remember going to downtown Detroit to J.L. Hudson’s, watching the Tigers’ games at the old Tigers’ Stadium and the great friends that I have. It will always be home for me.

From which high school did you graduate?

I had the opportunity to be part of the Horizons Upward Bound Program at Cranbrook, which is a program that brings children in from Detroit and Pontiac to spend six weeks on the campus working, getting an education and getting prepared for the next school year.  As part of that program, they presented us with the opportunity to go to high school full time, and I won a scholarship. I was boarded there on campus and majored in general studies. Upon graduation, I attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration in 1990.

When did you begin working for Johnson Controls?  Was it a direct hire, or did your current position come later?

Yes, the position at Johnson Controls came later. After graduating from the University of Michigan I joined Westinghouse in Cleveland and I worked here for a couple of years. After that, I went to Northwestern and earned a Master of Business Administration and joined a management consulting firm called Blue, Allen and Hamilton. I worked there for three years and during that time Johnson Controls was a major client and so after my time at Blues, I transitioned over to Johnson Controls in 1997. I’ve been at Johnson Controls for 15 years this summer.


Most recently, I was asked to relocate to Europe to run our metal business unit which is a $3 billion division supplying all of our major vehicle (auto parts) clients around the world. I relocated my family to Dusseldorf, Germany, and it has been a great experience.  We have three children, two daughters 14 and 12 and a son who’s 8. I am so glad for them to have the opportunity to live abroad and learn a different culture. They are having a lot fun and they’ve adapted well.

What are some of the unique differences between Germany and Detroit?

It’s mostly the little things. In Detroit, we are used to big parking spaces, big cars and trucks and big grocery stores, and Germany is not much bigger than the size of Texas. There are 83 million people here.  If you think about the topic of space, it’s very different.  The ability to communicate every day with your local grocer, Laundromat or dry cleaner becomes a task.  So that aspect of it was a difficult transition, but we’ve found our way.  The kids study the language in school, and we’ve become settled in.

Do you think the auto industry has regained its strength?

I think so. Clearly, we are seeing the volume in terms of the products that we are producing.  There’s an increase there.  The industry is on its way back.  I think the quality of the vehicle that is being produced in Detroit is as globally competitive as it’s ever been. It’s a good indicator and sign that the auto industry is on solid ground.

Would you recommend that people take the opportunity to work and live abroad?

Yes. I think the perspective you gain from getting out of your comfort zone and seeing the world from a new perspective is invaluable.  My children are still young enough to really understand and appreciate all that the world has to offer and the differences.  So to me, you’d be crazy to pass that up.

In terms of being marketable and globally competitive, how could Detroit benefit from Germany and other countries?

That’s a really great question. I think in our business we place a lot of value on benchmarking and trying to understand how our competitors are doing better than we are. Detroit should really commit to understanding what other cities in the States and within the world do to create economic viability in their own cities.  And there are so many different business models and great ideas about how to create jobs and new opportunities. We must gain a broader perspective of these benchmarks and begin to bring those ideas back to Detroit.

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