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Faces of the Industry: Jean Marie Thrower

She travels the world uniting OEMs and suppliers

Birmingham-based Supplier Development Systems got its start in 2006. There’s been significant growth in the company, but it’s still 100 percent woman- and veteran-owned by CEO Jean Marie Thrower.

Thrower spent much of May on the road, with stops in China, India and Detroit. The overseas visits were to meet with investors and share her expertise on the future of autonomous driving, an area that tech giants and the automotive industry are both trying to dominate.

Her company now serves 17 automotive clients with five full-time employees and three contractors. They provide strategic sales and business development for component parts and services to the Southeast’s automotive industry. Recently her company has also added distribution and warehousing to its focus, Thrower says.

While overseas visits hold promising opportunities, Detroit is the place where much of Thrower’s work has originated. Detroit OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers want to grow in the Southeast, but the different culture can sometimes lead to communication or operational failures, she says.

The Trump Effect, still being revealed bit by bit, has OEMs and suppliers moving on the pendulum from outsourcing everything to wanting their Southeast supply chains to have more local content. “Commodities that we used to see coming out of low-cost countries were the norm, but now we’re being asked if we have anybody local in the South who can provide it,” Thrower says. “The Trump Effect is alive and well in the Southeast and it can mean a lot of investment for the automotive industry.”

Thrower grew up “with very little money” in blue collar Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and started saving for her first car at age 16. When she finally got the car she found that paying someone else to do an oil change or swap out the brake pads was too expensive, so she learned to do those tasks herself. She credits the confidence and independence of learning to do those tasks, as well as time spent in the U.S. Army, with helping to lead her to start her own automotive company.

After putting herself through college, Thrower worked for 12 years in the automotive and manufacturing industry. After gathering experience in operations and engineering, she used the networking and relationships she’d built to launch Supplier Development Systems.

The company creates value by representing new and established suppliers from outside the area to OEMs doing business in the Southeast. Each OEM is unique and has its own set of preferences and ways of doing business, she says. While cost and performance are important yardsticks in the industry, companies also want to do business with people who represent a network of known factors and reliability.

On the topic of autonomous driving, something she is often asked to address at both national and international automotive meetings, Thrower concedes that drivers may end up being the drag that keeps technology from moving ahead at the speed that’s possible. Drivers seem to accept tech that may temporarily take over steering or braking functions to avoid an accident, but resist more complete autonomy for vehicles.

She cites autonomous trucks as one possible avenue for change. The driver shortage for tractor-trailer rigs has many experts suggesting that the answer might eventually be automation.

“People will need to compare human accidents to accidents involving autonomous vehicles and at some point, when they see reduced fatality rates from autonomous trucks, maybe a reduced fatality rate of 50 percent, they’ll realize a lot of lives have just been saved,” Thrower says.

That’s not to say the future won’t be without its complications. “We’re seeing a lot of autonomous vehicle cameras and vision systems, meant to operate without a person behind the wheel, that can still pose problems,” she says. Such cameras have to be kept clean so dust and dirt don’t compromise what the computer is seeing, but if the car’s cleaning system runs out of water the system is required to shut down when operation becomes unsafe. Thus the passenger could become stranded in the middle of a city or, worse, in the middle of nowhere.

She firmly believes that drivers will eventually accept autonomous vehicles, though it won’t happen overnight. Other industries have had to educate customers to make the leap to new technology.

Nobody thought we’d ever get used to using our phones like computers, but it happened.”

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