Saturday, April 22, 2006

At a Crossroads

The huge yellow building dominated the view as I flew over Webster City, IA (population 8,176). I learned that Electrolux, who I have written about before when they vacated 2,900 jobs in Greenville, MI (population 7,915), was also the big employer in Webster City. And, they had recently announced plans to move their newer front loader washers and dryers to Juarez, Mexico, leaving the older top-load lines. Seven hundred of the 1,900 jobs were going to be lost soon. As Yogi Berra would have said, “It was déjà vu, all over again!”

As I told them at the talk that night Greenville picked themselves up and had recently announced a new United Solar Ovonics plant with an investment of $1.2 billion, employing 1,200 people. From what I saw in my tour and talks in Webster City, I’m convinced that they have the same opportunity.

Gary Stanholm, head of ED for the city, explained another impact of Electrolux upon the town, “We’ve also got at least six suppliers to them with around 700 jobs that are located in the town. They are trying to diversify to other customers as quickly as they can.”

Webster City impressed me as a community. It is a very neat and clean town with numerous parks, miles of trails, hospital, rec center, modern swimming pool, new spacious library and community theater. It also has one of the nicest intact downtowns that has tremendous potential for redevelopment.

A local family, the Barricks, have developed a wonderful private wildlife reserve on the edge of town that they open to the public. The 7-B Ranch is used for weddings, get-togethers and even the town’s 4th of July Celebration.

Gary and I visited Vantec, Inc., a local plastic injection mold manufacturer that employs 150 people in a modern 150,000 sf facility. Willie & Bev Van Wyhe started the business in 1983 with 2 employees and 2 machines. Today they supply components for engines, medical devices, building products, appliances, etc. on 34 machines. They were a delightful couple who continue to live the business. Willie told me, “Bev and I were the second and holiday shift. I was the truck driver and sold as much product through the back door to plants as I did through the front door as a salesman. We just did what we had to do.” At 67, he’s still having a ball with no thoughts of retirement.

When I asked him of his thoughts on the future of manufacturing in the USA, he responded, “The ones that are going to survive are going to be super successful, even though there are only going to be a limited number. Those that make it are the ones making the tough decisions and figuring out ways to become more productive and cost efficient.”

Willie’s advice could be used for Webster City and many other towns that I visit.

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