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Forest City, Iowa, Economic Development Executive Director Beth Bilyeu knows how important the health of Winnebago Industries Inc. is to North Iowa, according to a report in the Mason City Globe Gazette.
“They are the 800-pound gorilla. They are the dominant force,” she said. “I think you would have a very hard time finding a family that doesn’t have someone working at Winnebago or knowing someone who works at Winnebago.”
And as the Forest City-based RV giant has endured tough times in recent months, the effect has been felt, local business leaders say. The number of families using the Neighborhood Food Bank increased by more than 60% over the summer as layoffs continued at Winnebago’s largest plant.
“It has been a difficult period. I don’t think anyone would say it hasn’t been,” Bilyeu said. “It’s not just here, it’s affecting people in a 60-mile radius, so obviously we’re hoping in the near future we’re going to see things turn around.”
Winnebago Chairman, President and CEO Bob Olson said the hardest part of the downturn has been the fact that so many employees have lost their jobs.
In a news release announcing the company’s financial results Thursday (Oct. 16), Winnebago reported its work force has been reduced by 42% to 1,930 employees in the last year. In 2004, when Winnebago reported record revenues and profits, the company employed more than 4,200 workers.
“I can’t wait for the day — and I still believe with all my heart that it is coming — when we’re going to be back to overtime, back to hiring,” Olson said.
And he admits his biggest concern when it comes to a turnaround is finding enough employees to work at Winnebago’s plants.
“That was a concern of ours in 2004,” he said. “We’ve faced that problem before, and I can tell you I can’t wait to face it again.”
A total of 270 salaried and hourly employees were laid off in late August when Winnebago closed its Charles City, Iowa, manufacturing facility, public relations specialist Kelli Harms said.
Work continues in Charles City at the hardwoods facility, where motorhome cabinets are manufactured, and the assembly facility where they make the ERA, a Class B motorhome.
Harms said Winnebago will reopen the main Charles City manufacturing plant “when the market returns.”
“Until consumers feel more confident in making large discretionary purchases and the economic conditions improve, as a company, we are going to continue to focus on efficiency and spend our money wisely,” she said.
Charles City Mayor Jim Erb said people are concerned about the situation. But they’re resilient, too.
“We’ve been involved with tornadoes and layoffs in the past,” he said. “That doesn’t minimize this event. At least we know what it’s like to face up to some adversity.
“I think we’re handling all this pretty well as a community, as far as keeping an optimistic view toward the future. Hopefully we’ll find some good news to report, and so will the country.”
The city has been on a positive investment and job-creation cycle since 1998, said Tim Fox, executive director of the Charles City Area Development Corp. He said there are more sizeable, stable employers in place.