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NORMAL - Sandra Gillespie sits in the front row watching the auto industry's tug of war for profits, literally counting the dollars needed to pull Mitsubishi Motors North America into the black.

After laying off nearly 1,200 workers from the Normal plant in 2004, Mitsubishi is revving to rebound, the company hopes.

To do so, someone must keep a stringent eye on the company's finances. That means hardball with parts suppliers. It also means telling engineers "no" on occasion.

In comes Gillespie, keeper of the company's $1.6 billion purchasing budget.

"She doesn't have an easy job. The first person we always go to for cost improvements is Sandy. Her job never stops," said Jerry Berwanger, MMNA executive vice president and chief operating officer.

"She's a good watchdog of the Mitsubishi dollars," he added.

She needs to be now perhaps more than ever. Gillespie became vice president of procurement and supply in April 2004, about the same time supply costs escalated and Mitsubishi sales dropped.

Six months into her new position, Mitsubishi slashed production and laid off nearly 1,200 employees, including her 33-year-old son, Damien.

MMNA's parent company, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Motors Corp., reported a $543 million loss for the first half of its fiscal year ending in September. And MMNA year-to-date sales through November, meanwhile, have fallen to just below 115,000. Sales peaked at more than 345,000 in 2002.

Industry faces challenge

But struggles aren't unique to Mitsubishi. The entire automobile industry is under fire.

MMNA officials hope financial troubles will turn around by March 2007. Increased sales and lower costs will both play a role, and Gillespie has given confidence to her employees.

"She's personable and a very acute businesswoman," Berwanger said. "I like her fresh approach on many items - she's very open to suggestions from her staff."

Tom Spangler, general manager of logistics and productions planning, reports directly to Gillespie. He admires her ability to promote team involvement. She's given her employees room to succeed, he said.

"She is always willing to ask the tough questions to make sure we're on the right track ¦ but she does not micromanage," he said. "A lot of people don't work well when they're constantly being told what to do, and Sandy doesn't do that. ¦ We're confident about what we've accomplished as a team. Our future is secure."

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