HUMBOLDT — Sheila English worked for 20 years at Iola’s Haldex brake plant when company officials announced in the summer of 2010 the manufacturer was relocating its Iola production to Monterrey, Mexico.
Soon-to-be displaced workers were given a choice: find work elsewhere immediately, or stay until the company closed its doors and receive a severance package. Those who left early received no such severance.
“I didn’t wait around,” English told the Register. “As soon as I found out, I started looking.”
She found a job almost immediately at Humboldt’s B&W Trailer Hitches.
Despite the emotional turmoil of losing her job and not knowing what tomorrow may bring, English said the move to B&W turned out better than she ever could have imagined.
B&W “is lots better than Haldex ever was,” English said. “Everybody here is more personable, and it starts with (owner) Joe Works. He cares about all of us. He may not know everybody’s name or exactly what everybody does, but he cares.”
English and several other employees spoke to the Register about B&W, which, like other local industries, continues to seek out ways to expand in an area that’s losing population.
In fact, B&W has added about 50 jobs this year, 15 in November, plant manager Mike Mueller said. That puts total employment at 350. And, “we plan to add another 20 jobs in the first quarter of 2015,” he said.
But finding dependable employees from a dwindling pool of job-seekers creates challenges, he acknowledged.
“We’ve changed our approach” in hiring employees.
In years past, B&W targeted employees with experience in the manufacturing sector, and those skilled, for example, in metal works.
Today, work experience is taken almost out of the equation, Mueller said.
“Now, we’re focused on finding people with a good work ethic and who want to learn,” Mueller said. “This is a better system for us.”
As a result, B&W is increasing its budget for training.
“It’s a two-way street,” Mueller said. “If you want the work force, you have to invest in it. You can’t expect people to come in here and know everything and be the perfect employee from day one.”
The company also instituted wage increases recently, to make B&W more competitive in the open job market. Mueller noted B&W pays all of its employees’ health insurance premiums, and offers profit-sharing bonuses (when possible). That’s not to mention stock offerings. Employees own a 10-percent stake in the company.
B&W also opened its own child care facility, The Growing Place, next door to the Humboldt plant, and offers daily child care to its employees at a discounted rate.
“We have a lot less absenteeism,” Mueller said, because employees are less prone to stay home due to childcare issues.
“Our goal,” Mueller said flatly, “is to be the best place to work in southeast Kansas.”
B&W’s turnover remains “very low,” Mueller said, “although it has increased. That’s why we’ve changed our approach to hiring and training. We figure if we can keep an employee here for two years, they’ll stay with us forever.”
TAKE HOWARD Wright, for example.
He had worked for several different companies, none long term, before applying at B&W in 1997.
“I’d never heard of B&W until somebody told me about it,” he said. “I had no idea who Joe Works or Roger Baker were.”
As he learned about the company, Wright grew enthralled.
“When they gave me my interview, they asked me why I came here,” he recalled, “and I told them I was looking for a lifetime career.
“There’s no comparison,” between B&W and elsewhere, Wright said, “from the way they treat their employees, the atmosphere, the attitudes. It’s all better.”
Jason Julich, Mueller and Wright were on staff at B&W when the Great Recession took hold in 2008 and 2009 and many local industries slashed their work forces by either the elimination of jobs or reduced wages.
Even as orders for B&W’s products dwindled, Works made a pledge to keep his employees working.
Instead of manufacturing turnover ball hitches, crews branched out to the community.
B&W employees built new grandstands at the Allen County Fairgrounds in Iola, planted trees and did other upkeep at Humboldt’s city parks, “and we did a lot of painting,” Julich said.
THE COMPANY’S appeal comes from its ownership, noted Julich, who started working for B&W in high school. He’s been there for 17 years.
“We have an open door policy that any employee can talk to anybody,” Julich said. “If you want to talk to the owner, you could knock on his door. He’ll talk to you.”
English agreed. “Joe cares about all of us,” he said.
The employees also lauded B&W’s system of considering each employee’s performance separately when deciding pay raises.
“At other places, you made the same no matter how hard you worked,” said Jerod Zellner, who’s been with B&W for about a year after working at another industry for about six years.