Takata Corp. parlayed its longtime connections with Japan's automotive giants to become the No. 3 player in the $1-billion North American seat belt market.
But Tuesday, Japan's leading safety restraints manufacturer made the news not because of its dramatic U.S. expansion--40% growth in sales per year for the past three years--but as the target of one of the largest product recalls in automotive history.
Joe Bailey, a spokesman for Takata Inc., the Michigan-based subsidiary of the Tokyo company, expressed confidence that the company will not be hurt by the recall of more than 8 million vehicles outfitted with the Japanese-made seat belts.
Takata has captured about a fifth of the North American market and is the primary supplier for Japanese auto makers manufacturing in the United States.
"The company is well respected and recognized for being innovative and having one of the finest records for developing safety features for vehicles," he said.
Spokesmen for TRW and AlliedSignal, the leading U.S. suppliers of safety restraint systems, said Tuesday that their seat belts are designed differently and they have not experienced problems similar to those that prompted the Takata recall.
Takata, which controls 50% of the Japanese market, is making headlines at a time when Japanese auto makers are under scrutiny for their purchasing activities on both sides of the Pacific.
Takata's dominant role in Japan's lucrative auto parts market reflects the trade imbalance that has U.S. negotiators playing a high-risk sanctions game to force Japan to open its auto parts market.
The Clinton Administration has promised to impose 100% tariffs on Japanese luxury cars at the end of June if Japan doesn't agree to establish targets for increased purchases of U.S. auto parts and automobiles.
TRW, the world's leading seat belt supplier, and AlliedSignal have carved out a very small share of Japan's seat belt market in spite of their success in the United States and Europe.
In the mid-1980s, TRW formed a joint venture with Tokai Rika, another major Japanese seat belt manufacturer, aimed at getting access to the expanding Japanese transplant market in the United States.
AlliedSignal, which recorded $5 billion in sales last year, exported just $50 million in automotive parts to Japan. However, the company recently acquired three seat belt orders from Japanese customers.
U.S. seat belt suppliers were reluctant Tuesday to directly criticize Japanese auto makers but said the small U.S. market share in Japan is indicative of the problems U.S. companies have faced breaking into Japan's markets.