Growing, gaining, and giving back

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GREENSBURG – For 30 years, GECOM Corp. has been growing in the Greensburg community, and through it all, they have continued to gain new knowledge and above all, made sure they kept giving back to the town that made it all possible.

Greensburg Equipment and Components Manufacturing Corporation (GECOM) is owned by the Japanese company Mitsui, a corporation that owns and operates many subsidiaries across the globe. In 1987, Mitsui opened the Greensburg location with just one client. Three decades later, the company counts all major auto manufacturers among its clients and has grown considerably beyond the original facility.

According to Brian Burke, vice president of the GECOM design facility in Novi, Michigan, it is the company’s employees that have been the driving force behind it all. Just as the auto industry evolved and changed, so did the employees – and the various skills they brought to the table.

As everyone knows, the last decade was not kind to the automotive industry. Many long-standing companies were not able to weather the storm, but GECOM not only came through, they continued to grow and adapt after the recession ended.

“We started off in ’87, as a customer to Honda primarily… but now if you look at our customer portfolio, we supply everybody,” Burke said. “That growth might be interesting for people to see. That’s what kept the plant where it is and really fueled the growth and evolution.”

Driven by Dedication

GECOM Human Resources Manager Amy Bray agreed that diversifying the company’s customer base helped keep the factory afloat during troubling times. However, the dedication of the employees and the longstanding mutual investment between company and employees was the driving force, Burke said. Currently, more than 50 percent of the GECOM staff have been employed with the company for 15 or more years, showing both their loyalty and the value GECOM places on its workers.

“I think that’s something unique to Greensburg,” said Greensburg GECOM Vice President Jeff Wright. “I think the people here just have a huge dedication and commitment to their employers and trying to make sure that they’re successful in their business. I don’t know that you could go anywhere else and see that.”

Wright said GECOM values its employees greatly. Burke added that it is not merely the company that does so, pointing out that if Wright or Bray were to walk out onto the plant floor, they would know the names of at least 75 percent of the operators. Not only their names, but their families, spouses, and children.

“I would say that one of our biggest secrets is our employees,” Burke said.

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For 30-year GECOM employee Sharon Howard, who started on the assembly floor but now works as benefits administrator, the Greensburg-based company was always her career plan.

“I had actually accepted another position at another place in Greensburg. Then GECOM called me and I thought of the future of GECOM within Greensburg. You know, new company, fresh start,” Howard said.

For Becky England, who also started in assembly and 30 years later works in data entry, she wasn’t expecting to spend her entire career at GECOM. It was what the company had to offer that kept her there for three decades.

“Friendships, and it was just a good place to work,” England said.

For Senior Materials Manager Brent Jones, it was the opportunities that kept him at GECOM for 30 years.

“We have a great customer base,” Jones said. “There have been a lot of opportunities for growth, individually and our company has grown a lot.”

When it comes to what’s changed, Jones said the biggest difference is, “Probably my waistline. But besides that, I would say the complexity of the products is probably what has changed the most.”

The way the company values employees appears to have started strong and only gotten better with age.

“They’ve been good to me,” said Denise Collins in the payroll department. “GECOM’s been good to me. I have no real complaints. We’ve had ups and downs. We’ve had good times and bad times. But the good times have far outweighed the bad times. There are good people here and I like what I do.”

Planning for the Future

“One of the things the GECOM management team has worked really hard on over the last two or three years is to protect the jobs in Greensburg,” Burke said.

In the manufacturing industry, protecting jobs is not always an easy thing to go, particularly when it comes to automotive manufacturing. As technology advances, so do production methods. For GECOM, that means bringing more automation to the assembly process.

According to Burke, adding automation will safeguard local jobs in the long run. While the robots help increase production in many areas, there will always be parts of the process that simply require the human touch, Wright added. Humans will be required to fix and maintain the machinery, as well as packing, loading, and shipping parts, testing quality control, and many other jobs. Over the next two years, Mitsui will be investing millions of dollars locally to bring more automation to GECOM.

“I think that’s commitment from Mitsui to invest millions of dollars this year and next year inside GECOM to continue the operation and to continue focusing on keeping GECOM a viable manufacturing facility in spite of all the challenges we face from low-cost countries,” Burke said.

Write said that while many fear automation will ultimately take jobs from humans, it was more about transferring a skill set.

“You might have someone who is on the line now assembling a door lock, but we have to have somebody to take care of the robots,” Wright said. “We have to transfer those skills from building a lock to take care of the robots.”

Investing in the Area

GECOM has plans to retrain many of their employees to shift their skills to other areas. The company was recently awarded a large contract with Fiat Chrysler to build door locks for the Ram truck. Production will begin toward the end of 2019 and it will be a fully automated system.

Called the J1 program, GECOM is investing a fair amount of money, not just at the factory, but in surrounding areas. The company is attempting to source local companies whenever possible. For example, GECOM has already spent over $1.5 million on tooling supplies in Batesville for the new automation.

“We will have to buy some of the equipment overseas, but there’s been a focus by the folks on the team down there to spend as much of the investment dollars in the US as possible,” Burke said.

GECOM is vertically integrated, meaning that they produce many of their own components through the use of their metal stamping and injection molding facilities. This provides an advantage over competitors because GECOM does not need to worry about lost time, or additional shipping and packaging fees.

In a single month, GECOM produces at least two million door striker plates between all their clients, components that are used all over the world to keep doors closed and people safe on the road.

Challenges

Over 30 years, there is just one short period of time that stands out as the worst to employees – the time surrounding the “Lehman Shock” as Wright called it – the 2008 bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers, the United States’ and the world’s largest financial services firm.

Wright said GECOM had to downsize and consolidate. At that time, the company had five North America locations – Greensburg, Novi, Michigan, two locations in Kentucky, and a small plant in North Vernon. When the recession hit, all but the Greensburg and Novi plants were closed.

“To come through that really low period of time, it was definitely the worst time I can think of in the 30 years. But the best time, I think, was coming back out of it and everybody pitching together to make sure that we’re back in that position where our customers know us and want to come to us for the products,” Wright said.

“We always described that really difficult time by saying we were chopping off arms and legs to preserve the body,” Bray said. “Now, we’re solid and stable.”

Growing Their Own

About five years ago, GECOM instituted a high school internship program, which allowed high school seniors with enough credits to work at GECOM half days and learn skilled trades. Bray said after some internal studies, the company realized that several employees would be retiring soon and they would have difficulty filling those positions.

After several conversations with Greensburg Schools Superintendent Tom Hunter, the internship program was born in 2013, starting with a class of six. Bray said a total of three classes and 18 students have been through the program to date, and eight of the students were hired full-time immediately after graduation.

“They graduated on the first of June and that following Monday we had them full time,” Bray said. “By August, they were enrolled to start their classes at Ivy Tech.”

The first man to complete the four-year journeyman program will be finished in May. He was a member of the first internship class.

“The people with those skills, you can’t find them,” Wright said. “So five years ago, we said, ‘we’ll grow our own, right here in Indiana.”

Bray said GECOM was able to capitalize on a lot of the knowledge and experience retiring employees had gathered through the mentoring program, which was instituted several years before the internship program.

Any GCHS students interested in the internship can speak to their guidance counselor or coordinator Dawn Lawson. Applications must be made by the end of junior year.

Get Ready, Greensburg

The Greensburg Ready Program is similar to the high school internship program, though it is meant to teach these skills to adults to allow them to secure new or better jobs. Bray said program participants learn entry-level skills, technology, and machinery that would help them get their foot in the door at a manufacturing facility.

At the end of the program, mock interviews (and real ones if jobs are open) are held. This program is funded through the Decatur County United Fund.

“This is a real skill set,” Bray said.

Continuing to Care

Burke said for its next 30 years, GECOM needs to continue investing in both the company and the employees.

“We think of employees as a heart count rather than a head count,” Burke said. “We’re not perfect at it, but what I hope we can make people understand is that we’re investing in their future just as much as they’re investing in ours.”

Several years ago, upon learning that many employees were not seeing the doctor because of associated fees, GECOM hired a full-time doctor and opened a clinic where GECOM employees and their families could see the doctor free of charge.

Wright said the clinic is just one of the ways GECOM is looking to give back. The company donated the land that the Carousel Daycare Center sits on, as well as some of the land for the walking path.

“We try to contribute to the community on an ongoing basis. We do care about the community and we will continue to care in any way we can,” Wright said.

Contact: Amanda Browning 812-663-3111×7004; amanda.browning@greensburgdailynews.com

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