Fred T. Bauer helped start Gentex in 1974 and fostered its growth into a Tier 1 automotive parts producer. Bauer’s company produces auto-dimming mirrors and camera-based backup mirrors. Both features now define modern cars.
Born during WWII, Bauer grew up in Fenton, Michigan, and received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Michigan State University. After college, he started Simicon, a company that manufactured electronic furnace control units with more sophistication than existed in the market. The products he designed used photo electric sensors. In the early 1970s, the company was purchased by Robertshaw Controls, which manufactured automatic control systems.
In 1974, Bauer cofounded Gentex, which began as a company that produced photoelectric smoke alarms. Initially, he was a stockholder and investor, until he realized that a component of the alarms could be used to create a rearview mirror that dimmed when bright headlights were detected. This realization spurred Bauer to become more active in the company in the early 1980s. He pushed the project through the phases of invention and production. One version was produced in 1982 that eliminated glare from bright lights in the mirror. In 1987, the company produced a more effective version based on electrochromic technology. This new technique of building the mirror eliminated the temporary blind spot that occurred after seeing the glare. Bauer later observed that breaking into the automotive parts market was exceedingly difficult as a small company, even having created an invaluable product.
Gentex continued to grow and innovate. Bauer instilled Gentex with a company culture that encouraged employees to look for new ideas and ways to improve existing products. Employees receive significant bonuses for new concepts that have potential, and then they can receive an additional bonus if the idea is patented. The success of this approach has been proven by the seven Automotive News Pace Awards from 1995 to 2022. The Pace Award identifies and celebrates important innovations in the global automotive industry.
Bauer’s contributions to the automotive industry helped make cars safer by reducing the dangerous impact of glare. He also created a company focused on innovation, which led to other automotive parts that make cars safer, such as rear camera display (RCD). He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2023.