Navistar says recent investments show committment to Springfield

Springfield’s Navistar facility has seen a volatile history in the last few years, but company officials said recent investments totaling close to $30 million are a sign that the local plant will play a key role in the company’s recovery.

The Springfield site has undergone several changes in the past several months, including hiring a new plant manager, an ongoing initiative to improve both efficiency and the quality of products, and an increasing emphasis to support workers on the assembly line. Local economic development officials said this is an important year for the company, which will also begin negotiating a contract with the United Auto Workers Local 402 later this year.

Recent investments, including $13 million for infrastructure improvements and $15 million in improvements at the plant’s paint facility, are a sign that Springfield will play an important role as the company tries to become more competitive, said Anthony Alferio, who has been serving as plant manager for the past several months.

Alferio had previously worked for General Motors at its assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky., which manufactures the Chevrolet Corvette. Before he took the position with Navistar, Alferio said he was assured he was being hired to improve operations at the Springfield facility, not close it down.

The investments made at the Springfield site are the most significant the company has made at any of its facilities in North America, he said.

“Unless you plan to be around for a long time you don’t make those investments,” Alferio said.

All of Navistar’s facilities, including Springfield, are also undergoing a “lean manufacturing” initiative. That process requires managers and workers to collaborate to make the manufacturing process more efficient. For example, Alferio said the work stations were reorganized to make sure employees had easier access to the parts they need to assemble the vehicles. In the past, workers often had to search a cluttered work area to find the right part.

Additional space that was saved could also eventually be used to bring more work in house. The goal is to continually look for ways to make the production process as efficient as possible, Alferio said.

“The most immediate benefit is you’re building the truck right the first time,” Alferio said.

The company has also changed its philosophy to focus primarily on the worker on the assembly line, said Jason Barlow, president of the United Auto Workers Local 402. That was not the case in the past, when he said the company often took a more hierarchical approach to dealing with its employees. The UAW Local 402 represents the majority of Navistar’s employees.

“They’ve actually been engaging the worker on the line because there’s a new philosophy being pushed from the CEO down that all of us need to be there to empower the line operator,” Barlow said.

Both Barlow and Alferio said the relationship between the UAW and the company has also improved in recent months. Alferio was a member of the UAW for 18 years and said he has more than 30 years experience working with the union.

The company sometimes butted heads with the UAW in the past, Alferio said, but is now trying to maintain an open dialogue throughout the year.

Navistar as a whole has struggled financially in recent years. In March, Navistar announced it lost $248 million in its first quarter in part due to earlier problems getting approval of its engine technology and a decline in military sales. But Steve Schrier, a spokesman for the company, said he believes business will likely improve as customers increasingly look to replace aging vehicles after the recession.

“Springfield is an important part of our turnaround,” Schrier said.

Mike McDorman, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber and Visitor’s Bureau, agreed this will be an important year for Navistar. The company is one of Springfield’s largest employers, and if both sides can successfully reach an agreement on a new contract it would benefit not only local workers, but also several other smaller firms which supply parts or other services to Navistar.

“They’re the manufacturing giant of Springfield, and we work very hard with them to help facilitate their needs locally,” McDorman said.

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