By Kevin Haas
Four years ago, Rockford's historic Gunite manufacturing plant was at a crossroads. Owners had to decide whether to close, sell or fix the underperforming plant.
Accuride CEO Rick Dauch, who had been recruited to lead Gunite's parent company in 2011, chose the latter. Today, after four years and $63 million in improvements, the plant is recognized as a model of manufacturing excellence. Accuride Rockford Operations — better known locally as Gunite — was recognized by the Association of Manufacturing Excellence on Tuesday with a rare AME Excellence Award. Last year, three companies received the honor: one in Mexico and two in the United States. This year, only two facilities were recognized, both owned by Accuride. Accuride's plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, was presented the award last week.
"It's difficult to achieve," said Barbara Morrison, president and CEO of the association. "It shows a lot of stamina, fortitude and really, really extreme hard work by the plant and management."
Many of the plant's 350 employees gathered Tuesday for recognition from AME. The award recognizes North American plants that demonstrate excellence in both manufacturing and business.
"Being a part of this is very special to me because this is one of the positive things going on in Rockford," said Ed Bledsoe II, the plant's director of operations. He then told employees gathered at the ceremony that "each and every one of you guys are a huge part of our success."
Dauch said it was necessary to discuss the plant's unpleasant position in 2011 to understand how it rose to its current level. Back then, working conditions were intolerable and equipment wasn't capable, Dauch said. But the plant was still going despite no capital investment in 25-30 years "because there was a fighting spirit among the workforce to keep this plant alive."
"This was a dirty, dangerous, money-losing, fast-hemorrhaging business that had been left dead by its previous ownership — private equity ownership — and the Accuride leadership," he said during the ceremony. It was "the worst factory I've seen anywhere in the world, including China and India."
Since 2012, Accuride has invested $63 million to install machining and assembly equipment, upgrade casting operations and consolidate work done in Elkhart and Brillion, Wisconsin, into Rockford.
"Most companies are running away from North America or out of the United States," Dauch said. "I'd rather run in. As long as the government is going to work with us and the union is going to work with us, then we'll invest."
Gunite Rockford Operations is a 590,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. It supplies wheel-end systems and components for heavy- and medium-duty trucks and their related aftermarkets. The Gunite-branded product line includes brake drums, disc wheel hubs, spoke wheels, rotors, and slack adjusters.