After investing $6.1 million on an upgrade of its Statesboro plant during a six-month shutdown in 2012, Viracon continues to rebound and has been hiring. Meanwhile, the architectural glass fabricator also is being recognized for its focus on its employees as people with lives outside work.
So Ogeechee Technical College, assisted by the Statesboro -Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce's Industry and Large Business Committee, chose Viracon as the area's nominee for 2014 Georgia Manufacturer of the Year. Viracon, state winner in the medium manufacturers category in 2005, was not chosen for the state award this year but garners praise locally for its commitment to its employees and the community.
"They have a lot of good things going on out there in their employee programs," OTC Vice President for Economic Development Lori Durden said. "They're just really good to their employees."
Viracon stays conscious of the work-life balance with seasonal activities that, in addition to providing fun for employees and their families, serve as a reminder for management, Viracon Plant Manager Rick Farmer said.
Near Christmas, Santa visits with gifts. There's an Easter coloring contest and a Valentine's event with candy for children age 12 and younger, and an annual picnic with games for all ages on the factory grounds.
"When you see an event and everyone comes in and they've got kids, it really puts a different perspective on it," Farmer said. "They're people, they're not just employees. So those family events really pull it together."
Built in 1998, the Viracon factory employed about 600 people by the early 2000s. But like the rest of the building materials sector, demand for architectural glass was hit hard by the 2008 recession.
By March 2012, the plant was down to about 300 employees. The company idled the factory from March through August that year, keeping on only about 25 people, Farmer said, while investing more than $6 million on new equipment and renovations aimed at improved efficiency.
That bold move is another reason Viracon was nominated this year, Durden said.
"They chose to keep the plant open and make that investment, and we thought that was pretty important to highlight," she said.
As Durden noted, when the plant reopened, most of the employees - about 80 percent of them by Farmer's count - returned to work at Viracon. The company's human resources department had kept the furloughed workers updated about the progress of the retooling, then reached out to them when the relaunch date neared. But the number who chose to return surprised even the plant manager.
"That was huge because when we started up we didn't have to restart brand new," Farmer said. "We brought our current workforce in and retrained them and took off from there."
Of the $6.1 million capital investment, he said, about $2.4 million was spent in the Statesboro area.
"Our equipment has a lot of international support from Austria and elsewhere, so those parts and the equipment had to come from those places, but where we could use local labor and trades, we did," Farmer said.
Now the factory is back up to 350 employees, and Viracon's biggest ongoing contribution to the local economy is its payroll, between $7 million and $8 million annually. While most of the Statesboro factory's production is sold in the southeastern United States, it is also exporting glass through the port of Savannah to Japan, China, Australia and India.
The Technical College System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Economic Development sponsor the Manufacturer of the Year awards as part of their Manufacturing Appreciation Week. This year it was April 14-18, with awards presented Thursday at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park.
Gulfstream Aerospace, headquartered in Savannah, was saluted as 2014 Large Manufacturer of the Year (more than 500 employees). Medium Manufacturer of the Year (150-500 employees) is Hitachi Automotive Systems Americas in Monroe. Small Manufacturer of the Year (under 150 employees) is ddFoodSolutions in Tucker.
Ogeechee Tech works with the Chamber of Commerce committee to select a nominee each year from the college's service area, Bulloch, Evans and Screven counties. Statesboro's Briggs & Stratton plant was 2002 Large Manufacturer of the Year.
Locally, Development Authority of Bulloch County Executive Director Benji Thompson and OTC's Durden presented Manufacturing Appreciation Week proclamations to Statesboro City Council and the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners, which adopted them unanimously.
In addition to jobs that manufacturers create directly, they spawn jobs at businesses that serve the needs of industry and their employees, Thompson said.
"Manufacturing also allows jobs that are, on average, higher paying and better benefitted than some other types of jobs," he said "Another important point is that manufacturing brings to our community a significant amount of capital investment."
The taxes that industries pay on that investment help reduce the tax burden on homes and other property, he noted.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.