Dotson Iron Castings employees on Friday celebrated with ice cream and root beer in the break room while workers on the floor began pouring the first molten iron in the five weeks since a fire heavily damaged the plant.
"It's nice to see," said employee Jacob Utzka. "It's been kind of slow, so it's good to get up and running."
While Jean Bye is now president of the company, chairman Denny Dotson was on hand Friday to join employees in marking a remarkably quick turnaround as major pieces of new equipment were installed and much of the roof replaced at the damaged plant.
"We figured out that in five weeks if you take all our employees' time, all the contractors, everyone, there's been 50,000 hours of work done — 1,000 hours a week."
Fire broke out at the plant at 200 W. Rock St. on Sept. 22, with damage initially estimated to be at least $1 million. But as crews went through the building, the damage proved more extensive, topping $5 million.
"We had a significant amount of our roof that needed to be taken off and replaced. With that came a lot of electrical and other work," said Liz Ulman, organizational development manager at Dotson.
The company also had to replace three pieces of equipment that make the molds the molten iron is poured into. And the sand distribution conveyor belt had to be replaced.
Although they haven't been able to pour iron since the fire, the plant has continued to run three shifts with a reduced number of workers on the lines.
"We have been making cores and shipping those to other foundries. They've been pouring and making our castings and then they send them back and we do the grinding and finishing," Ulman said.
She said they've worked with seven foundries across the country on the temporary arrangement.
Event with the work cutback at the plant, all employees kept their jobs and paychecks during the restoration project.
"Every employee has worked full time since the fire," she said. Many employees were sent to do public service work at different agencies around the community, including doing charitable work for VINE, the Children's Museum and the city.
Employees also were kept busy doing tasks such as painting projects in the plant. "We sent people to different training, too. Several are training with equipment manufacturers."
Utzka said employees appreciated the company keeping everyone on when they could have done layoffs.
"They did their best to keep everyone busy. It was nice to be able to keep your paycheck the whole time," said Utzka, who's been at Dotson about four years.
Dotson melts more than 100 tons of ductile iron castings daily to make 1,500 different molded castings.
In recent decades the company was led by Dotson. In 2010, Dotson named Bye president.
In 1876 Laurence Mayer started a blacksmith business that was just 300 feet from the current location.
It later became Little Giant Inc. and became the Dotson Co. in the 1950s. In the 1980s the company shifted its focus and bought new equipment, but a downturn caused business to drop by 80 percent and the company nearly went bankrupt, hanging on only after employees agreed to take pay cuts. After a few years of increased productivity, the company returned to profitability.
In the 1990s the company became Dotson Iron Castings.