During the grand opening ceremony Friday (May 9) for a Winnebago Industries Inc. factory in Charles City, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsac said the plant and Winnebago’s recent growth represent what he would like to see in the state’s economic future, according to the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.
Vilsack said the high-tech factory is indicative of the advanced manufacturing facilities he believes are a key component in improving the state’s economic landscape.
“This is really what we’ve been fighting for with the Iowa Values Fund,” he said, referring to an $800 million economic development proposal currently hung up in the Iowa Legislature. “It would allow us to partner with the private sector, just like we did with this project.”
Several hundred curious residents gathered along with Vilsack on Friday to celebrate and tour the $12.5 million Class C motorhome assembly plant, which actually went into operation two months ago.
The 200,000-square-foot factory produces about four units a day, but Winnebago executives say it will build 15 Class C’s a day when it’s fully operational.
The factory employs about 300 people who earn roughly $10 an hour, the Courier reported.
It’s the third Winnebago plant to open in the Southwest Industrial Park, a joint venture between the Charles City and Floyd County governments, in the last four years. Those expansions have made the RV manufacturer the city’s largest employer and have helped an area battered for years by high unemployment after several factories shut down, according to the newspaper.
Winnebago’s other factories in Charles City produce kitchen cabinets and diesel-pusher Class A motorhomes.
The company’s headquarters and main manufacturing complex are in Forest City, Iowa, about 65 miles northwest of Charles City.
“Winnebago is one of Iowa’s success stories,” said Vilsack, accompanied by Mike Blouin, director of the Department of Economic Development. “Rarely do you see a ribbon-cutting opportunity in tough economic times.”
For the most part, Winnebago has escaped the recession. It reported record revenue and profits during its last fiscal year and a 30% increase in earnings during its most recent quarter.
The company was forced to trim production two months ago as the hesitancy of dealers to stock up during a war led to an inventory backlog. That sent its stock sliding, reaching a low of $24 a share in mid-March, 52% off its recent peak of $50 set in November. The stock price has rebounded 63% since, closing Friday at $39.
“The RV industry has weathered the downturn in the economy very well,” said Winnebago Chairman, President and CEO Bruce Hertzke, noting the company hasn’t laid off any workers. “What’s happening is that airline travel is down significantly, international travel is down, cruise travel is down, but the American people still are looking for a way to enjoy life.”
Charles City beat out 100 communities in four states that courted Winnebago for months after it announced its intention to boost capacity by 30%. The community was favored because of its transportation infrastructure, available work force and proximity to Winnebago’s Forest City facilities.
The Charles City Class C plant is divided into 32 stations. Ford chassis are brought into one section of the building, where the frames are extended to the proper length. The plant features a computer-guided laser system that allows workers to cut materials without having to take measurements, the Courier reported.
The vehicles then roll along an assembly line where a series of automated overhead monorails place the cabin floor, walls, cabinetry, slide-outs and roof onto the chassis.
Once the exterior shell is complete, vehicles slide across the floor to an adjacent assembly line where interior work is done. Placed along the line are boxes full of the comforts of home: TVs, microwaves, couch cushions, mattresses and lights all ready to be installed.
One problem the company has already encountered is how to efficiently install refrigerators, the Courier reported.
“That’s the toughest thing to install because of how heavy it is,” said Don Niver, one of the tour guides for the open house. “We’re looking at a different way to do it, perhaps putting them in before the roof goes on.”
Once assembly is complete, each vehicle undergoes a pair of tests. The first is for waterproofing, in which the motorhomes are subjected to a booth designed to simulate a 50-inch rainstorm to check for leaks. The vehicles are then placed on rollers, with the cruise control set at 60 mph so inspectors can check everything from the suspension to the air conditioner under normal driving conditions.