Neaton Auto Products Manufacturing Inc. has launched a $10 million to $13 million expansion plan, following some of its biggest customers into the South. The Eaton, Ohio-based auto plastics supplier announced April 26 it is building a 60,000-square-foot, 70-employee factory in Rome, Ga., to produce steering wheels, interior trim, instrument panels and air-bag modules.
Construction should wrap up late this year with full production under way by June 2001, said Kim Willetts, vice president for Neaton Auto and its new Neaton Rome Inc., in a telephone interview.
Neaton has considered expanding in the South for some time, he said. It already turned out parts headed south of the Mason-Dixon Line for General Motors Corp.'s Saturn Corp. division in Spring Hill, Tenn., and at Nissan North America Inc.'s Smyrna, Tenn., production site.
The scales tipped once Honda of America Inc. — which accounts for 65 percent of Neaton's business — started building a production site in Lincoln, Ala., he said.
"We had looked down in that area in the past," Willetts said. "[Honda] factored into our decision, but it wasn't our sole reason."
Neaton already makes steering wheels for Honda's popular Odyssey minivans, shipping them to Alliston, Ontario.
Alliston turns out 150,000 Odyssey vans annually, with plans to increase that number to 160,000. The Lincoln plant will take over Odyssey production once it opens in 2002.
By then, Neaton will have its facility up and running in neighboring Georgia.
The company also has a contract to supply steering wheels for Saturn's new sport utility vehicle, set to ramp up in Spring Hill next year for the 2002 model year.
The Rome operation will handle the same variety of work as Neaton's 500,000-square-foot Eaton plant, with injection molding presses of 55-2,000 tons, reaction injection molding, vacuum forming, a paint line and welding and die casting.
"It could improve some of our transportation to and from our customers," Willetts said.
Neaton joins more than 200 other automotive suppliers in Georgia, serving part of the growing auto base in the South.
The "southern automotive corridor," which includes Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, accounted for nearly 23.1 percent of all U.S. vehicle production in 1998, with an anticipated 25 percent growth spurt by the end of this year, according to the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism.
Neaton's 35-acre site has room for further expansions, but the company is not discussing future plans. The bulk of the employees will come from the Rome area.
Neaton, a subsidiary of Nihon Plast Co. Ltd. of Fuji City, Japan, also has a sister company, Nihon Plast Mexicana, in Queretaro, Mexico, which produces a variety of plastic auto parts.