The auto industry is losing one of its most respected members with the announcement that J.T. Battenberg III is retiring from his post as chairman and chief executive of Delphi Corp. Battenberg, 61, announced he would retire Wednesday after a 44-year auto career, first at General Motors Corp. and then at GM’s onetime subsidiary Delphi, which was spun off in 1999 as an independent company. In his six years at Troy-based Delphi, Battenberg built up the company while reducing its reliance on GM for orders. From his perch as the head of Delphi, with US$29 billion in annual sales, Battenberg emerged as a spokesman for the supplier industry, driving home the need for better relations between parts producers and Detroit carmakers. “It’s a difficult decision to leave a company and an industry that I have come to love and a team of which I’m extremely proud,” Battenberg said. “But this timing is in line with what my career plans have been for some time.” Battenberg will stay until a replacement is found president. Sources report that chief operating officer Rodney O’Neal is among the candidates. Like most auto suppliers, Delphi is struggling because of soaring steel and other raw material costs. It has also been buffeted by GM’s financial difficulties and loss of market share in North America, and by the hefty legacy costs that Delphi inherited along with its work force. “He was handed a pretty tough deck of cards to play with,” said Bob McKenna, president and CEO of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association in Raleigh, N.C. Delphi has lost money for three of the past six years, but McKenna said Battenberg helped stave off disaster by steering the company into new and more lucrative areas. Delphi expanded its business with other carmakers – and non-GM orders will account for a majority of its revenues this year. Delphi was among the first suppliers to open plants in China to serve carmakers crowding into the booming market, and developed non-auto businesses such as medical equipment. Although Battenberg has spent much of his time restructuring Delphi, he has adopted larger causes. One of his biggest concerns is that the United States is not turning out enough manufacturing workers skilled in areas that will be in demand. “Anytime an industry loses a leader like J.T. Battenberg, it has an impact,” McKenna said. During his career, Battenberg has held high positions at GM in areas ranging from automotive design to manufacturing and finance. In the early 1990s, he headed GM’s auto components group before it was renamed Delphi Automotive Systems and spun off in 1999.