New owner moving forward with former Ford glass plant

Monday, August 4, 2008 at 2:41am

When a start-up backed by a billionaire offered to buy Ford’s Nashville glass plant in 2007, local union members eagerly approved a contract that halved their salaries at every pay echelon and raised the cost of their insurance plans by 20 percent.

United Auto Workers Local 737 president Tim Garrett sums up the decision to take Zeledyne Glass Products’ offer in one short sentence.

“It was better than looking for another job,” he said.

Former owner Automotive Components Holdings, a company created by Ford in 2005 to house its glass production, had a mandate to sell or close its 16 plants nationwide by the end of 2008. ACH’s Nashville plant — operating at half its capacity and with some of the highest labor costs in the industry — wasn’t exactly at the top of the list of potential survivors.

But three months after the Zeledyne deal — which also included plants in Oklahoma and Mexico — the plant is on track to keeping its doors open for a lot longer.

“We are a company that is 90 days young, but we have made significant progress in the implementation of critical initiatives,” said plant manager Alex Locklear.

The plant has added a reinforcing department and 62 new jobs to a workforce that, while nowhere near its one-time peak of 3,500, still numbers more than 800.

More investments are on the way. At the time of the deal, Zeledyne CEO Michael McCarney told industry publication USGlass the company planned to upgrade much of its equipment in Nashville and Tulsa, Okla.

Garrett and other company officials were mum on details, but a contractor last month pulled a building permit for a small equipment storage building at the plant.

Tax abatements may play a role in those expansion plans. Councilman Buddy Baker last month sponsored a tax incentives resolution for the plant and plans to meet with Zeledyne representatives and Metro officials to work out details of a potential package in the coming months.

“I think that (Price is) going to bring this glass plant back around,” said Baker.

A move into commercial glass production also may be in the Nashville plant’s future, according to Don Corn, a retired five-term president of Local 737 who talked with Zeledyne founder Robert Price. Zeledyne produces its Versalux line of architectural glass in Tulsa.

Zeledyne’s takeover has already created at least one new opportunity. The plant’s newfound emancipation from the ‘blue oval’ may open the door for new customers who no longer have to fear that Ford’s glass needs will be prioritized.

Although Zeledyne officials refused to comment on potential customers, Nissan executives were seen touring the plant last month. And Volkswagen’s decision to build an assembly plant in Chattanooga has created another large opportunity.

“The auto companies that I’ve dealt with, they’ve always played things close to their vest,” said Don Corn. “They like to produce glass exclusively. I think this is going to do wonders for the plant.”

A Nissan official refused to comment on the possibility of contracting with Zeledyne, saying the company doesn’t comment on potential supplier deals.

As for the Local 737, members lament the loss of their lucrative Ford pensions but are relieved that they can count on their jobs being around for a while. Pete Wakefield, who led Local 737 during the Zeledyne sale process, says it was the right decision.

“We hated to see Ford to leave the town,” said Wakefield, who retired recently. “But it was a lot better than seeing weeds grow up in the parking lot.”

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