An experience in Ohio
Saturday, February 25, 2017 5:12 AM
True story. I arrived at the old, large (16 acres under roof) decrepit facility near Akron in January 1986 when I was 35 years old. I had volunteered for this job.
This old facility had three ancient paper machines, a significant steam and electricity power plant that looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno, and reportedly the third largest printing plant of its kind in the country.
It had about 1,000 employees, down from around 2,000 in 1980. The corporation that owned it, based in Chicago, was part of a larger conglomerate based in Texas. This facility had been in the conglomerate’s “Red Book” (their terminology for problem assets they would like to be rid of) for a record period of time – 25 years.
The fall before, the Chicago-based company had had a voluntary reduction in force program where many on the management staff were offered a payout if they took early retirement. The facility in Ohio had lost about 25 percent of its management employees, including all the top staff.
My position, upon arrival, was that of senior manager of the maintenance, technical and utilities departments. A new manager had arrived for the printing plant. A person had been promoted over the paper machine operations.
There was a search under way for a vice president for the entire facility. We had an interim person in that job from another facility.
The union in the mill had a reputation for being tough. They were descendants of a group who had migrated there from the coal mines of West Virginia after World War II. It turned out later that their bark was worse than their bite, but that is a story for another day.
The place was a wreck. Maintenance had been ignored for years.
For instance, when I arrived, I had 139 pieces of motive equipment, but they were in such bad shape that we were renting fork trucks in order to keep the facility running. Inventory counts were fictional. The inmates were running the asylum.
The little town where this facility was located was inhabited by the facility’s workers and their retired compatriots. They were very myopic – they would bring me photos and stories from the local paper from the 1940s that said this was the most modern facility of its kind as if to attempt to prove the delusions in their heads. It was truly a mill town.
Coming from corporate, I knew how dire the future looked for the facility. I had been told the management team which was being formed and of which I was a part was the last one. If we couldn’t make this place profitable, it would be shut down.
The printing plant manager and I dug in and hoped reinforcements would arrive soon. The paper operations manager had been promoted before we got there and was part of the local crowd and did not have the message from corporate.
What struck me in the first weeks after I arrived was the attitude of the employees. It was like this: The facility had been there for 80 years (it was first built to make Morton Salt boxes) and it would be there another 80 years, so they thought. They were whistling through the graveyard and didn’t know it.
In a couple of months, a new vice president was hired and took charge of the entire site. The first thing he did was fire the paper machine manager (this guy refused to take night and weekend calls and he was responsible for a 24/7 operation).
The VP ran that department himself for a few months until we hired a new paper machine manager. Later, he told me he had me in his sights at first, he always fired someone senior soon after his arrival just to make a point. After a couple of weeks, he decided firing me was a bad idea, I was the only one who “got it,” and when there was a catastrophe, day or night, I always called him from the scene, not from home. He decided he couldn’t do without me.
We got in gear. We cleaned the place up, threw away 80 years of accumulated junk. We got the inventory straightened out. We realigned positions and eliminated redundancies.
What was our thanks locally? From day one, they thought we were nuts – that we had no idea what we were doing. We had tires slashed and threats made against our families.
I had an OSHA violation filed against me. One of the turbines caught on fire on the bottom side and there was asbestos there. During the fire, I made sure I was as close to it as anyone, because I knew already that there would be an OSHA filing and I did not want to be interviewed as the manager who stood back out of harm’s way.
I had an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board filed against me for bulldozing a break room that I had told the employees three times to clean up or it was gone.
My nickname became “Sledge” and I wore it proudly.
If your name was not spray-painted on the restroom wall with a few suggestions of where you could go or what you could do to yourself, you were not doing your job. I think mine was the first one up. Since I owned the restrooms, I finally stopped repainting them.
Finally, things calmed down and we did clean them up and make them ones you would be proud of at home.
Some retiree in town called the Houston headquarters of the conglomerate – talked to their security department – and told them we were throwing away valuable equipment (at that time we had sent over one 100 40-yard dumpsters to the landfill). A senior security officer was dispatched to have a visit with us. He spent a day. We told him our story, and he left with the comment, “Carry on.”
We turned a profit in January 1987. It was the first real profit (not one ginned up by false inventories) since 1962. I was promoted to manager of the mill operations in March. In September, the corporation tried to sell us. After all, we were making money, it was a chance to dump this place.
Through no fault on our side, the buyer backed out. Several of us, including me, left. The person who had originally come in on our team as manager of the paper machine operations (after the first guy was fired) stayed. He was able to keep the operations profitable until the late 1990s when it was finally sold.
Now, it is gone. The new owners ran it into the ground. But our efforts (and I was just a small part) gave the place nearly another 20 years when it was on death’s door facing imminent shutdown.
I look at President Trump and I have a great sense of déjà vu. Portions of the population are behaving exactly like the employees in the old facility near Akron. They are calling him crazy, just like they did with us. They think everything is fine when it is not, it is very sick.
I hope he succeeds like we did.
Godspeed, Donald Trump.
Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press.