Eaton endures years after nearly closing

HUTCHINSON — Five years after Hutchinson persuaded the Eaton Corp. not to close its hydraulic manufacturing plant and move 450 jobs to Mexico, company officials say the plant is gaining employees and building manufacturing momentum.

While the facility still produces equipment parts for the agricultural and construction equipment manufacturing industries, plant manager Tony Niese said it has changed its business focus and reorganized seven core areas to produce thousands of individual products.

"We're a high-mix, low-volume plant now," Niese said. "That's our norm. Our orders are relatively small, compared to others. But we can quickly change over our machines. Because our products are diverse, we need an experienced workforce that's very good at what they do."

Where other plants might manufacture 1,000 pieces for an order, the Hutchinson plant might get 16 in a batch. "We'll run that batch, and then change the machine over to run another batch that's slightly different. We do that several times a day."

Eaton shocked the city in 2006 by announcing that the plant was one of four in the country that it would close, saying it had become inefficient and had too much floor space and a lack of manufacturing complexity.

The company's contract with its union required it to give employees 30 days to devise a plan to prevent the closure. City, county and Chamber of Commerce officials quickly developed a proposal that included $1.5 million in local and state funding to demolish nearly half of the 700,000-square-foot plant.

Eaton officials announced in August 2006 that the plant wouldn't close, although 150 assembly jobs went to Mexico.

Nearly a year later, Hutchinson officials decided to market the extra space rather than tear it down. The $1.5 million was used to buy 286,000 square feet from Eaton. That area was transferred to Sunflower Wind, a wind turbine manufacturer, for about $300,000. Sunflower Wind still owns the space but it's being used to store wheat.

Eaton used a portion of the funding it received for improvements to its side of the plant. It received another $750,000 toward plant improvements and $773,000 for training. And state lawmakers authorized $2 million, which Eaton is required to reimburse over 10 years through state withholding taxes of plant employees.

By 2008, Niese said, "we were humming along pretty well." Then the economic decline hit. The plant had its lowest employment near the end of 2009, with 123 hourly and 24 salaried employees.

"We started to grow again in 2010," Niese said. "By Dec. 31, we grew to 187. Today we're at 194."