In 2009, the recession landed hard on Wilbert Plastic Services. Headquartered in Belmont, N.C., the company had already been showing signs of decline before the global market downturn pushed it further into financial turmoil.
“In addition to having taken on some over-aggressive expansion, the company was just generally underperforming,” said President and CEO Greg Botner.
At the time, Wilbert's floundering Lebanon, Ky., injection molding facility made parts for the appliance industry. Today, the plant churns out more than 49,000 components daily for Ford Motor Co. vehicles, with that number set to nearly double this year.
The shift didn't happen by accident. Wilbert management identified the automotive industry as a promising opportunity and overhauled operations to position themselves in that market.
“We knew that with the growth of the automotive industry in the mid-south and the southern states where we have a strong presence, that we couldn't ignore being in that marketplace,” said Botner, who joined the company in 2005 as a member of its board of directors.
The Lebanon facility's primary client, Ford, has major operations in nearby Louisville.
Wilbert focused on hiring management-level and support-level staff who had experience in the automotive industry.
“It's been our experience that the people that are experienced in that industry come with good capabilities and developed skill sets for manufacturing,” Botner said.
Turning around the company's performance operationally created a pathway to being able to do business with Ford, he added.
“That plant and its regional proximity to Louisville, and our collective experience as a management group, it all kind of converged, and Ford's open-mindedness to having a supplier who had the knowledge but not yet proven capability to supply them, they took that risk with us,” Botner said.
Wilbert produces parts for the Ford Escape; future Ford projects are in the works. And the new business has brought more changes to the facility.
“Logistics management in that plant had to take a huge step forward,” Botner said, including reworking its management of inventory and the flow of returnable dunnage between Wilbert and its customer facilities.
Wilbert also expanded the facility and upgraded its equipment, introducing automation, Botner said. The plant currently runs presses up to 2,500 tons of clamping force and recently purchased several new machines.
“It's definitely advanced for a like-kind business,” he said. “We're using a lot of robotics in that facility, a lot of automation, we're using some more exotic molding techniques.”
Wilbert's conversion to produce exclusively automotive parts at its Lebanon plant required retraining efforts as well, Botner said.
“Retraining and refocusing the way we do business, as well as introducing automation and a higher rate of turnover in terms of product, were our challenges,” he said. “And the management team there did a great job in terms of reinventing themselves.”