Local manufacturing showing signs of a comeback
There are signs that the Michigan economy is rebounding — slowly, but surely. The following is the third in a series of stories that point to a more positive outlook in areas that affect Tecumseh and the surrounding communities.
For a time, there were predictions that manufacturing was on the decline in this country and would likely never recover. To the surprise of many, however, signs of quiet recovery in that sector are surfacing, and Michigan is one of the beneficiaries of the rebound.
The 2013 Michigan Manufacturers Directory, an industrial directory published by Manufacturers’ News, Inc. in Evanston, Ill., recently reported that Michigan gained 14,648 manufacturing jobs from January 2012 to January 2013, or 2.3 percent, despite the loss of 54 manufacturers. The report also notes that Michigan is now home to 14,222 manufacturers and employs more than 650,000 workers.
An article in the April 22 issue of Time Magazine noted that “Made in the USA” is making a comeback with major companies opening plants on US soil again — as well as smaller companies stabilizing — marking the first time in more than a decade that the number of factory jobs has gone up instead of down. But as the article pointed out, today’s versions are “not your grandfather’s” factories. Today’s shops require cutting-edge technologies, computer skills and specialized training. Large machines do much of the labor, but still require workers who can operate them. This is something that Tecumseh’s Jeff Kuhman, President of Glycon, can attest to.
“We have a very unique product, and it takes specialized machining skills to make what we make,” Kuhman said. “Only a few others do this the way we do it.” He said that those operating local manufacturing firms work with local educators such as the Lenawee Intermediate School District TECH Center and colleges to try to convey the type of skills their firms are in need of, so a foundation can be laid. “But we also have our own training program because it’s so specialized today.”
Jim Van Doren, Executive Director of the Lenawee Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) said that local companies who have made it through some pretty hard times over the past few years are poised to bring temporary workers on full time and possibly even add new ones in the future.
“It’s really good news, because I think all our companies in Lenawee County that have survived the great recession now have their inventories back in order,” said Van Doren. “They are seeing their orders increased and going out for a longer period of time, and that’s always a good sign. So things are looking very positive right now.”
Van Doren said the surviving companies are also picking up business from others that did not make it through the difficult times.
“As the competition has dwindled for some, we’re seeing investment in equipment and investment in employees so I think we are seeing a rebound. But with that being said, there is also a caution since many were so heavily dependent on the automotive business, they will position themselves so that in the future, if it falls off again, they will be better able to handle that.”
Van Doren said a lot of companies were able to make it through the hard times through diversification, but as the automotive business rebounds, such companies will pick that back up because it’s where their knowledge and profitability lies. Glycon was one of those companies, and now has a stronger presence with their ability to serve new customers as well as those returning as the automotive industry rebounds.
Van Doren said the LEDC has also worked with companies such as Wacker Chemical in Raisin Township.
“They’ve put on additions over the years and brought work to their plant here,” said Van Doren. “They are now steady and strong, and have even increased their investment.”
“I think we’re in a very healthy business position,” said Bill Toth, Communication Director for Wacker Chemical. “We have a very broad portfolio with products that address many end-user needs, applications that give us that diversification so we’re not just centered in one or two industries. We supply multiple industries and multiple markets.”
Van-Rob Corporation/Len-awee Stamping is another local industry that has survived the downturn and proposed more than 200 jobs for its Tecumseh plant as part of a recent incentive grant valued at $5.3 million through the state and an industrial facilities exemption from the city. Van Doren said the company has experienced the loss of some product lines, but new business is coming back from automotive-related companies.
“I think by fall or early next year they will be in full production and at capacity,” said Van Doren.
Other positive signs in Tecumseh include the addition of DiggyPOD LLC, which is scheduled to move into vacant space on Industrial Drive later this year, and the upcoming opening of Comstar, which makes starters for the Ford Motor Company, at 900 Industrial Drive.
“We’ve seen some signs of life in terms of existing manufacturers who are adding jobs and talking about new customers,” said Paula Holtz, Director of the Tecumseh Economic Development Department. “People were holding their breath for quite a while, but we’re seeing some of our vacant buildings being filled and there’s a lot of interest through inquiries from companies looking at moving or expanding manufacturing here.”
She said while these are often smaller projects, Tecumseh has had something to offer for companies like DiggyPOD and Comstar that have found space here. Tecumseh’s Economic Development Department works closely with the LEDC and MEDC to visit existing companies each year. “This helps us gauge where they are and what they might need while letting them know of new programs that exist,” Holtz said. “It helps keep a dialogue open.”
While there has been no activity yet in Tecumseh’s Business and Technology Campus on M-50, Holtz said as the existing facilities fill up, that could be next on the horizon.
“As available buildings come off the market, which is happening, or when companies need specialized buildings or corporate headquarters, that could change,” she said.
Tim Robinson, Director of Operations with the LEDC, said he’s encountered requests for some of those specialized needs, such as when responding to inquiries about the former Power Tec facility in Raisin Township.
“Some companies are asking for buildings with 25-foot ceilings now, and that facility has them,” he said. Robinson added that the LEDC has been responding to a number of inquiries as firms look at Lenawee County for possible expansion or relocation.
“One of the interesting things is that we have had some inquiries for Greenfields [undeveloped land in a city], so they can build their own building,” Robinson said. “We’re hoping that means that the inventory of existing buildings is evaporating or being put to use. And if a company needs more space or have to modify, they might as well build their own. So more companies may be looking for that in the future.”