Grimy oil covered the foundry's floors. Darkness ruled. Workers came and went before long.
That was the way things were at Gunite, a semitrailer truck brake drum maker, when Jeff Clark — now director of production management — started working at the foundry 34 years ago. New hires would "come here for a day or two and say, 'What did I do?' "
When Mark Bucey, senior product engineer, began working at the 162-year-old Gunite 40 years ago, the place felt like a "dungeon," he said.
Things didn't change much for a number of years. And then Accuride Corp. acquired Gunite in 2005.
And after $63 million in improvements the past four years, the 590,000-square-foot manufacturing plant is an award-winner.
Improvements included installing machining and assembly equipment, upgrading casting operations and consolidating in Rockford work that had been done in Elkhart and Brillion, Wisconsin.
Three to four dozen windows have been installed throughout the plant, and more will be put in, Clark said. Break rooms were upgraded. "You do not have to worry about putting your arms on a table and getting all dusty," he said.
Flowers and trees were planted outside. Neighbors are happier with the appearance, he said. Their new line of thinking, he said: "I am not living next to that dirty old Gunite."
"It makes you feel like you are going into a manufacturing (plant) you can be proud of and feel good about yourself," Clark said. Gunite employs 350 people.
Accuride CEO Rick Dauch said in September during an award presentation at the plant that Gunite is producing positive cash flow for the first time in almost a decade and a half. Its revenues in 2014 were $171 million, which is a quarter of Accuride's total revenues for the year.
The award that Gunite received was the Association of Manufacturing Excellence's Award. In 2015, only two facilities were recognized, both owned by Accuride. The other was in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 2014, three companies received the honor.
"The award was a validation," Bucey said. "Getting that third-party recognition (shows) we really have done what we say we have done the past four years," Clark said.
Clark said that when Barbara Morrison, president and CEO of AME, made the award presentation, there were technical difficulties with the microphone. Employees had strained so much to hear her words that Clark said a transcript of her address was provided to workers.
"They were really upset they were not able to hear," he said.