Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Business

December 16, 2012

Former Johnson Controls employee bracing for Cequent job loss

Close to 450 Goshen jobs headed to Mexico

GOSHEN — As the news hit, Kaye Owens felt a sick sense of deja vu.

Owens, currently employed at Cequent Performance Products, was among the crowd of employees informed Nov. 21 that Cequent would be closing.

Similarly, she was also among the employees of Johnson Controls who were informed they would lose their jobs in 2001. The company officially closed Feb. 25, 2006 and had a peak number of jobs at just over 1,200, according to The Goshen News archives.

“I try to be an optimistic person, but I could see it,” Owens said. “After Cequent gave us the news they were moving the OEM (original equipment manufacturing) lines to Mexico a few months ago, we knew.”

Cequent will be moving all of its production from the Goshen facility to Reynosa, Mexico — the same city, in fact, that Johnson Controls moved to not more than six years ago. Cequent will begin the move sometime in 2013, though no official timeline has been released, according to parent company spokesperson Alan Upchurch of TriMas.

Owens, 57, began her career as a laborer in March of 1977 at Johnson Controls, and intended to retire from Cequent, where she began working in September 2002, she said. Now, she’ll have to find work to get her through to retirement.

Though, it won’t just be Owens looking for work. It will be her, her husband Charles Owens, her stepson Andrew Whitman and son Brandon Kenney all looking for work also. All four will eventually be laid off from Cequent, she said — four among the around 450 employees at the Goshen plant that will lose their jobs.

“The people that work there now make a good wage,” Owens said. “There are a lot of people who drive a long way to work here. People come from all directions — Niles, White Pigeon, Columbia City — to work here.”

A trip to the border

Councilwoman Dixie Robinson said Goshen and its residents know what it’s like to lose a large number of jobs in a short amount of time when a local factory closes up shop. She put in 44 years of work at Johnson Controls before it shut its doors. Robinson retired early because she noticed changes in business practices, she said.

“I knew they were going to go out of business,” Robinson said, thinking back on the company.

The transition for the company’s move from Goshen to Reynosa, Mexico, began slowly, Robinson remembered. First, just a few manufacturing lines moved, and then more and more until everything went south of the border.

“They were bringing people from Mexico up here, and employees were showing them their jobs,” Robinson said. “People were upset for a good reason.”

Robinson went to Reynosa around 1997 to see the plant with several other Johnson Controls employees. The first thing she noticed about the border town were the numerous brand-new manufacturing plants.

“There’s something to see in those great big factories stretching for miles,” Robinson remembered. “You could see the signs for big manufacturing companies everywhere.”

Robinson said she doesn’t blame Mexican workers who labor in the new factories, but she does blame the corporations for moving jobs out of America.

The impact in Goshen after Johnson Controls, along with several local rubber companies, went out of business has been lasting, according to Robinson.

“A lot of people were unemployed. Business went down in the stores,” Robinson said. “That’s going to happen now, too. I don’t think Goshen’s ever recovered from that. People are working for less money, and they don’t have the quality of life they had before. I have one friend who’s never found a full-time job since Johnson Controls shut down.”

The solution is a commitment to buying American-made products, Robinson said. From clothing to household appliances, purchasing American-made goods is a way to keep money in businesses that support American laborers, she said.

Similarities and differences

Owens’ time at Cequent wasn’t bad, she said. In fact, it was successful from the beginning, when she started work at the factory for $1 more an hour than what she made at Johnson Controls.

“At Cequent, I started work on saws and brake presses, something I could never do at Johnson Controls because of seniority,” Owens said.

One major difference between the closings of the two plants was the attitude of the corporate management, Owens said.

“At Johnson Controls, they gave us a time period to get better, to try to pull things together and work harder,” Owens said. “Then they ultimately decided to move. Not with Cequent.”

Owens said the closure of Johnson Controls marked a beginning of a downturn in manufacturing for her, and the attitude seen from the companies. What does Owens blame for this shift in attitude? Corporate greed, she said.

“Back when Johnson Controls moved, corporate greed wasn’t as strong as it was now,” she said. “They’re moving companies out of the country so the corporation can make more. I can’t imagine knowing what I was doing as the head of a corporation like TriMas — I can’t imagine doing that to American people.”

Growth strategies

TriMas said the decision to close the facility “is never easy,” in a Nov. 21 statement.

“The decision was in the best interest of the long-term direction of TriMas and Cequent Performance Products,” TriMas said in an email from Upchurch Wednesday. “The increasingly competitive global market is forcing customers to demand the lowest cost products. The Company has been faced with challenges based on existing costs and is also concerned that retaining the next generation of our current programs may not be assured without meaningful changes in our cost structure. Therefore, the decision was made to close the Goshen facility and relocate to our facility in Mexico.”

The company reported record-setting third quarter sales in an Oct. 25 press release. Third quarter net sales were $335.9 million, an increase of 21 percent when compared to the third quarter of 2011, according to the release. Profits were $36.6 million in the third quarter.

“Our record third quarter sales demonstrates we are successfully executing on our growth strategies,” said David Wathen, TriMas President and Chief Executive Officer in the Oct. 25 press release. “We achieved sales growth of 21 percent during the third quarter, resulting from our bolt-on acquisitions, product innovation, market share gains and geographic expansion. In the midst of an uncertain global economic environment, we identify the bright spots where we believe we can capture growth for our businesses. We are making careful decisions to accelerate growth programs that are working, as we capitalize on opportunities that will drive long-term stakeholder value, while still mitigating and controlling risks.”

One similarity between Johnson Controls and Cequent is the process of moving, Owens said. Both companies have brought in workers from the Mexican plants to learn how to operate the machinery here before it is shipped to Mexico, she said. While employees didn’t have to speak to them, they did have to allow the visiting workers to watch them use equipment.

Can Goshen recover?

Owens said she believes Goshen will be hit harder by Cequent’s closure than it was by Johnson Controls’ closure.

“It’s going to hit Goshen a lot harder because they’re good-paying jobs,” Owens said. “It’s going to be a lot harder now, because when Johnson Controls shut down, there were other jobs available. This is also going to hit other businesses, like Speedway near the factory, where everyone stops. Other places, too.”

Owens stood outside of the now-abandoned Johnson Controls factory Wednesday afternoon. She looked into the building, pointing out where she used to work — now visible to the outside world because a wall of the factory is coming down.

“It’s a weird feeling to look inside and see this,” Owens said. “You can’t help but drive by here and think about what was here — we had good times. Not a week goes by that I don’t run into someone from here. I worked here for 25 years, and in 25 years, you spend a lot of time with people.”

Cequent has a sour atmosphere now, Owens said. Though attitudes have calmed down from the days immediately after the closure announcement, so has productivity.

“Unfortunately, the mood is killing production,” Owens said. “People are working like they’re not getting paid. A lot of the younger people are having a hard time with it, and it’s hard to separate yourself from what the final outcome will be.”

Owens is looking at technical school to help her post-Cequent. Government assistance through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program may help her get benefits for up to 130 weeks of training for a new trade, according to the agency’s website, www.doleta.gov/tradeact. Petitions will be filed for these benefits by the United Steelworkers union, according to Owens.

“I’ll see if I can’t find some kind of trade around here,” she said. “At my age, the manufacturing is sometimes hard on me, so maybe I can find something easier physically.”

Though, Owens’ education will wait until she’s done with Cequent, she said. The company’s been in high production for the last few weeks, she said, with 60-hour work weeks to meet demands. She won’t leave work early because the job pays well.

“They’ll have to kick me out the door,” Owens said. “I’m in it for the ride — I’ll be there. I’ll work until they won’t let me.”

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Three Goshen elementary schools — Chandler, Chamberlain and West Goshen — are providing free meals to all students during the school year as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Nearly 80 percent of students at Chandler, 89 percent of students at Chamberlain and 78 percent of students at West Goshen already qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on their family income. How do you feel about the new lunch program?

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