Business Q & A

A conversation with Todd Seeley

It was a rough 2009 for the employees at CNH's Wichita plant and for Todd Seeley, the plant manager.

The plant saw demand for Case and New Holland skid steer loaders plunge last year as the economy tanked. Lots of layoffs followed.

Things look better now. Orders are up and some workers have been recalled. The company continues to update the plant, and some of the jobs that were lost, Seeley said, won't come back as they once existed.

He took the job as plant manager in 2007 after a career of traveling and moving through the ranks of GM, Ford, John Deere and Caterpillar.

Seeley, 48, was widowed last year. He has two children.

How bad was the downturn at the plant?

"Historically, the plant would produce about 20,000 units (a year). Last year we produced 4,000 units. Basically, we went off a cliff.

"What we did as part of that was reduce our work force. We also scheduled a lot of partial workweeks to maintain some level of activity and gain something."

Is this year looking better?

"We are seeing the economy moving upwards and, along with our competitors, we are seeing that the requirements of the marketplace are higher. So if we went from 20 to 4 (thousand units a year), this year we'll move from 4 to 10. That is double what we did last year. Some of that will mean just working the full year, but it will also mean bringing some people back."

You said the plant will make $20 million in improvements?

"In the fourth quarter, we'll be doing a major changeover. Part of our ramp-up is in order to anticipate the fourth-quarter volume. But we are also bringing them in to train on the new equipment and the new work stations. We will have some level of shutdown, but some level of activity as well."

Didn't the plant just undergo some major changes?

"About two years ago, both brands (Case and New Holland) made a significant engineering change to adapt to the new Tier 3 emissions requirements from the EPA and at the same did a product redesign.

"The other thing we've done is, within the Fiat Group there's something called World Class Manufacturing, and World Class Manufacturing is a version of the Toyota production system. It's a lean engineering, lean manufacturing process where you attack losses and improve efficiency of manufacturing. We've done a significant amount of investment in order to improve the efficiency of the plant."

Does that mean new robots?

"We already do a significant amount of welding with robots. We're going to be increasing the amount we do with robotics and will also increase the amount of material handling that we do with robots.

"Today, we use a lot of manual material handling with hoists and fixtures. There are ergonomic issues and safety issues with that. To eliminate that, we are adding more robots to pick up and move materials from a robotic welder to another robotic welder, very similar to what you'd find in an automotive plant."

Does that mean fewer jobs in the long run?

"As you reduce the amount of labor in the welding, you add some amount back into the support for that. You have to have technicians who can troubleshoot and maintain the robots. You have to have engineers who can write programs for the systems. So there is a trade-off.

"In general you will see a higher need for education among our employees because they will have to have computer skills and engineering and math skills that were not required 10 or 15 years ago."

How did you get to be plant manager here?

"I grew up in Wisconsin. I was a farm kid, on a dairy farm. One of the reasons I'm here is that I learned early on I didn't want to do that...

"In my previous job I was at Caterpillar, where I managed the rail equipment business for the division of Caterpillar called Progress Rail. I was on the road 25 days a month.

"My move to Wichita really was to get to a position where ... (I had) a little more home time."

So, how tough was last year?

"Having to trim the work force and recognize that people were going to be laid off, that wasn't fun. Many of the people I knew. We downsized people both hourly and salaried. I was the one making the decisions on who was going and who was staying. That was stressful.

"Also, too, because we were operating at such low levels, we had to learn how we could cut every cost as much as possible."

So, what's fun about the job?

"The biggest excitement is watching a product come to life at the end of the line. You know in other manufacturing places you build widgets and you put them in a box and ship them out. But here, at the end of our assembly line that pile of steel and wire and paint and rubber hose breathes to life and drives off the assembly line."