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Great Dane, indeed
With 500 employees, 4-year-old plant OTC industry of the year nominee
Great Dane-OTC Truck Web
Great Dane donated the trailer of this truck last month to Ogeechee Technical College for use in its commercial truck driving program. TKO, onsite graphics vendor at the Great Dane plant, donated and installed the OTC decal graphics.

Four years after opening, Great Dane Trailers' Statesboro plant has surpassed the 500-employee mark. So, when selected as the 2016 Manufacturer of the Year nominee from Ogeechee Technical College's tri-county service area, Great Dane entered in the large industry category.

In qualifying for state incentives to build the plant in Bulloch County's Gateway Industrial Park, Great Dane committed to create at least 400 jobs. That was in 2010. One year ago, the plant wasn't there yet. But as reported in the Manufacturer of the Year nomination form, the plant added 188 jobs in 2015. As of last week, the plant had added 46 employees so far in 2016, bringing its total workforce to about 540, Plant Manager Kevin Black said in an interview.

"We're not in full production yet, so we're hopeful to get up to full production over the next year or two and get our employee numbers up higher than they are now," Black said.

By announcing 400 jobs at first, company officials were being conservative to make sure they could honor their commitments, he said. Similarly, the company's reported investment in the plant surpassed the original $35 million prediction, instead amounting to a $40 million initial expenditure plus $2.4 million toward continuing improvements.


More jobs to come

The Manufacturer of the Year nomination, prepared in January, predicts that the plant will employ 650 people at full production. But in a factory that manufactures a very complicated product - refrigerated truck trailers built to customers' specifications - the ultimate size of the workforce will depend on the variety and complexity of the orders, Black said.

"If we're running the mix of very complicated trailers that we run right now, then it will probably take close to 650 people to build those at full production," he said.

The plant appears on track to reach the 600-employee mark by year's end, but this is also contingent on the time required to train people for complex jobs.

"The key is getting the employees that we bring in trained and making sure that we're on board with the safety and the quality of the work that's done before we go to the next stage," Black said.


Savannah-born

Founded in Savannah in 1900, Great Dane now operates nine factories in seven states. The 450,000-square-foot Statesboro plant fulfilled a company goal to build a new one in the area after closing the old Savannah plant in 2009. Great Dane maintains corporate offices both in Chicago and in Savannah, where it is building a new research and development lab.

Manufacturers are required to be in operation at least three years before being nominated. One year ago, Great Dane Statesboro was just at that threshold and would have been in the medium category, for manufacturers with 151 to
500 employees.

Ogeechee Technical College and the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce, specifically the chamber's Industry and Large Business Committee, together made the nomination. They nominated Great Dane as soon as it was definitely eligible, said OTC Vice President for Economic Development Lori Durden.

"They do a lot in the way of giving back to the community," she said. "Obviously, they brought a lot of jobs to the area and invested a significant amount of capital to build that facility. So we wanted to highlight all of the good stuff they do here. It's important that we keep recruiting more companies, good jobs to the area, so they're just a great example of that."


Educational partnerships

Great Dane participates in the Bulloch County school system's Pathways to Prosperity program, encouraging children to explore paths to future careers. Black is a member of the school system's Committee on Community Engagement, and the plant hosts student groups and staff members make classroom visits.

From the first, the state Quick Start program, operating under the Technical College of System of Georgia, has provided job-specific training for some of the plant's newly hired employees.

But Great Dane also developed a direct relationship with Ogeechee Tech, which provided free office space while the plant was built. They worked together to make sure the college's general welding classes would meet the company's continuing need for skilled welders.

"We sent our welding instructor to Brazil, Indiana, which is where another one of their plants is located, so that he could observe their welding techniques first hand and have a better idea of the skills he needed to be teaching to his students as potential employees for the company," Durden said. "All of our graduates from our welding program are guaranteed an interview with Great Dane."

Of about 75 welders currently employed at the plant, probably half came out of Ogeechee Tech's program, Black said.

Georgia Southern University is even more dominant in supplying the plant's engineers, although it requires fewer engineers than welders.

"Right now we have 16 engineers on site, and 14 of them are Georgia Southern graduates, and I believe they've done a tremendous job," Black said.

He praised Ogeechee Tech, Georgia Southern and East Georgia College for working together "to help make a path that's doable" for anyone wanting an education toward a career in industry.

"This is the seventh state I've built trailers in, and it's really been the most progressive state when it comes to the state using all of its resources to try to support industry," he said.


Community involvement

Great Dane and its employees give to the United Way and participate in Relay for Life, raising money for the American Cancer Society. The company both serves as a sponsor and fields a team for the Feed the Boro Golf Scramble, donates to school and athletic booster groups, and backs employee participation in other charities.

This Friday, employees will choose human targets for a Relay for Life pie-throwing event.

"I probably don't have to tell you that I have to dress differently that day," Black said.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Manufacturer of the Year awards will be presented Thursday during the Manufacturing Appreciation Week luncheon in Atlanta.

"We are proud to support the effort made by Ogeechee Tech and the Chamber's Industry and Large Business Committee," said Statesoro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce President Phyllis Thompson. "We are so glad that now Great Dane has been here long enough to be eligible, because this is one that we've been looking forward to nominating."

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

 

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