Jerry Moran got an earful from area residents on a campaign stop to Iola and Humboldt Friday morning.
The Congressman was met with a somber mood at Haldex, Inc., the brake manufacturer that officially announced that morning that it would be closing.
Moran, who represents the 1st District, is campaigning for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Judy Kramer, plant manager and a 35-year employee, said manufacturing is projected to cease “by the end of the year, but I think that’s really stretching it,” she said of all the work to be done.
The work force of 160 is at full capacity, Bill Maness, logistics and inventory services manager, said, and may even incur some overtime in the near future.
“We’re doubling inventory now to build a bridge inventory,” he said. This not only satisfies current orders, but also builds up inventory to last through the transition to Monterrey, Mexico, where the components Iola manufactures will be produced.
Haldex is a worldwide company, “whose footprint in the United States is quickly diminishing,” Maness said.
“A few years ago we had more than 500 employees. We had to blacktop a new area for additional parking. Then we saw lines of production go to Hungary, then to China, then to Mexico. And now we’re seeing the rest of it go to Mexico.”
“Ballpark wages” for Haldex employees are $13-$15 an hour, Maness said. No chance to negotiate lower wages, “which I’m sure employees would have accepted,” was extended by the Swedish-based company, he said.
As a Haldex employee and mayor of Iola, Maness told Congressman Moran he is trying to look at the situation positively.
“There’s no ‘woe is me,’ only where do we go from here,” he said.
“We have a highly trained work force that knows how to work as a team,” he said. “We’re a marketable item,” which can hopefully be attractive to another manufacturer.
Haldex employees are able to do “just about anything,” said Maness. “We’ve got people in assembly, quality control and engineering. Whether you’re building a brake or a toy, we’ve got the know-how. We use Six Sigma,” a manufacturing business model that troubleshoots problems.
Maness said he’s hoping for strong community support in response to the closing and as to what happens next.
“Haldex has decided what it’s going to do. Now we need to appeal to them to do what’s right in terms of the transition. Then we’ve got to grab the positive and run with it,” he said.
AT B&W Trailer Hitches in Humboldt, the Congressman asked rhetorically, “Business is OK?”
Well, no, said Joe Works, president.
“We track the truck market, which is down 40 percent over the last two years,” Works said.
A “spurt” was felt in May, Works said, but sales of big trucks are still lagging.
“We’ve been struggling to keep all of our employees working the past 18 months. We’ve picked up some minor projects to fill in the gaps, but it’s tough to introduce a new product during a recession,” he said.
B&W has 185 employees, down from a peak of 200 in 2007, due to attrition, Works said. B&W pulls employees from a 30-40 mile range. Works estimated about 25 percent of his work force comes from Humboldt.
Works said he was concerned about the Department of Transportation going after the “European model” which “really restricts the ability of ordinary citizens to pull a trailer on the highway.”
Another worry is limited U.S. production of steel, a vital component to the manufacture of hitches.
B&W expanded its facility north of Humboldt by 4,500 square feet this past year to accommodate new equipment and has plans to add a new powder paint area, despite the economy, Works said.
“We’ve just kind of plowed into it anyway, thinking that there would be a coming out the other side,” he said. The expansion isn’t to fill ball and socket manufacturing, but into new agricultural products.
As for its trademark product, whose patent has expired this year, Works said he relies on customer satisfaction in the continued support of his business.
“We think we’ve held our own really well as far as developing a brand,” he said. “We think that if there’s any loyalty left, then people will continue to buy from us because they know of our 20-year history. And if you’re hooking up your racehorse behind a truck, you don’t want to say ‘Well I’ll gamble on an import that I don’t know anything about.’”
B&W’s market is primarily the United States and Canada, Works said, with a bit in Australia.
MORAN also toured the new Allen County Critical Response Center and its ambulance station as well as the Iola Fire Department station.