Lightning seldom strikes twice in the same place, but it did this week when Gregg Hutton — and about 10 other Haldex expatriates — learned Iola’s Herff Jones plant would close Oct. 1.
Just five years ago almost to the day, said Hutton, the announcement was made the Haldex Brake plant, a stone’s throw north of Herff Jones, was closing and moving production to Monterrey, Mexico. Herff Jones production of diplomas and their covers will be moved to Indianapolis.
Hutton’s immediate reaction: “I was mad, and maddest because for the second time I thought I was all set” with his career in manufacturing management.
He had accumulated ample vacation and was on, he thought, a comfortable path to retirement at Haldex, working in quality control and manufacturing supervision, when the ax fell.
“That was a shock,” Hutton said. He never had an inkling the parent company was considering a production shift from Iola to Mexico.
Hutton stayed with the company beyond closing here, going to Mexico to help get production on line. When his time with Haldex ended, Hutton thought he would take some time off, although it came in the dead of winter when it was too cold — two blizzards occurred during the period — for him to spend time on projects in his garage. “Daytime TV gets old in a hurry,” he also lamented.
“I was off work a month and three weeks, the first time since I was 12 years old,” Hutton recalled. The hiatus ended when Herff Jones brought Hutton onboard Feb. 21, 2011, in shipping and production management.
HUTTON SAID there was a significant difference between Haldex and Herff Jones closings.
“I was surprised when Haldex” made its announcement, he said. Nothing had led him or other rank-and-file employees to think Haldex would desert Iola for Mexico.
At Herff Jones, Hutton said, there were tell-tale signs over the past few months that something might be about to occur.
In response to those nagging concerns, he and other employees — he is quick to compliment the work ethic and dependability of co-workers — responded the only way they knew how: They worked hard to demonstrate just how good and dedicated the local work force was.
That led Hutton to his first stage of anger. “We had just finished our busy season and we’d worked our butts off, long hours, sometimes 65 and 70 a week.”
His second frustration was having a new career rug pulled from under his feet — mainly the prospect of retirement.
At 51, Hutton isn’t old by any stretch of the imagination. But in the work-a-day world, he wonders if he may be overlooked by someone younger when he goes to look for a third career in management, even though he has a degree in business administration from Pittsburg State University and nearly 30 years in supervisory positions.
“I’ve never considered myself older,” he said. “I can work as hard as ever,” which was the case in working long hours at Herff Jones. But, in reality, he fears whether another employer will want “to hire someone 51, 52 years old.”
Hutton said he is not interested in working his way up again. He’s paid those dues and has experience in management he thinks will translate to a new position, although he knows there will be hurdles. “They all have their own processes, software, political environments.”
Even so, Hutton says, “I’m blessed. I know there is something out there for me. My wife — Roxanne, Iola’s city clerk — has a good job. We had 80-plus employees at Herff Jones and some of them were the main bread-winners” for their families. “I have a lot of concerns for those folks. When you work with people for years, it’s like a family. Some are close to retirement; I’m not so worried for them. But there are others who are 15 or 20 years away from retirement.”
THE CLOSURE announcement included an offer for Iola employees to stay with Herff Jones by transferring to Indianapolis.
“No,” was Hutton’s emphatic answer to whether that was a consideration. Family is far more important.
His father, Harley Hutton, lives here and the Huttons’ sons and daughters-in-law are near at hand. Also, son Brian and his wife, Patricia, recently adopted a baby — a picture of the threesome is prominently displayed in the Hutton home. They are in Ottawa, where both work in the school system. Son Darin and wife Annie just graduated from Pittsburg State and have taken jobs in Olathe. “They both are the same direction now and we can see them in a single trip,” which happens often.
Hutton will remain with Herff Jones until the plant here closes. Whether he takes another position before the Oct. 1 closure will depend on the offer.
“I started work at Perry’s Restaurant (in downtown Iola) when I was 12 — I was supposed to be 13, but no one knew it until my birthday — and I haven’t been out of work since,” aside for the seven weeks after Haldex closed, Hutton said. He has no intention of breaking the chain, but having to look for a new job for the second time in five years is at best a little trying.