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Baxter Healthcare a Delta industry success story

CLEVELAND — In the 1940s there was a major push with the Balance Agriculture with Industry program to bring more industry to Mississippi in order to diversify the economy to provide more stability.

Certainly one of the major success stories of that program in the Delta was attracting Baxter Healthcare Corporation to locate in Cleveland. The company that celebrated 50 years in Bolivar County in 2000 currently employs 1,000 workers, making it the largest employer in Cleveland.

The company that occupies about 900,000 square feet of space in Cleveland is the world’s largest manufacturer of solutions for irrigation as well as glass intravenous (IV) and respiratory therapy products.

Hundreds of other products are manufactured at the plant. Each year the plant manufactures millions of intravenous solutions packaged in glass, and about six million blood plasma collection containers.

An abundant supply of good water helped attract Baxter to Cleveland in 1949. Initially the plant hired about 200 employees and for the first two or three years concentrated only on manufacturing products to be used in the Korean War. After the war the plant switched over to domestic production.

With depressed prices in agriculture and layoffs in other Delta industries this year, Baxter Healthcare’s presence in the community has been particularly important. Scott Luth, executive vice president, Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce, said Baxter is somewhat “a hidden company.”

“Few are aware they are here and our largest employer,” Luth said. “They are a major industry in the Delta and a controlled, high-precision manufacturer. They work in a clean-room environment that is very sterile, and provide high-paying jobs for biologists, chemists, engineers and computer technicians in addition to the hourly line workers and quality control specialists. They do provide employment stability from the manufacturing base and have a number of different types of jobs in areas such as injection molding and blow molding in addition to pharmaceutical-related jobs.”

Luth said it is particularly important in a heavily agriculturally dependent area like Bolivar County to have employment diversity that can help weather periods of time when there is low profitability in the farm sector.

“When the agricultural community has bad years we lean heavily on our industry to maintain our economy,” Luth said. “We are fortunate that not only Baxter Healthcare but Delta State University have been able to provide employment to a number of individuals in this area. So we have not seen as drastic layoffs as the rest of Delta.”

In recent months there have been 70 workers laid off at Royal Vendors and 100 employees laid off at Duo Fast.

Luth added Baxter is an industry that isn’t as affected by economic swings as other industries. If people are sick and need health care, they will get it regardless of the economy. So Luth said the community feels secure the company will be able to maintain its employment, and hopefully even be able to grow.

Cleveland Mayor Martin T. King Jr. said that Baxter Healthcare has expanded six or seven times since locating in the community.

“Each time they expanded it was equivalent to a new industry coming in,” King said. “They’ve been a salvation to us as far as employment is concerned, and brought us recognition internationally because of the products they make. We can’t say enough nice things about Baxter. Their administrative personnel are top drawer. They impact us greatly.”

The mayor of the city of 14,000 people said it is particularly helpful having the presence of Baxter in the community at present because the company is hiring at a time when there have been layoffs in other industries.

Donnie Miller, who was plant manager until very recently when he resigned to take another job, said the plant is one of the most diverse manufacturing facilities within Baxter International Inc. The plant has seen ups and downs during its history in Cleveland, going from a high of 2,300 employees in 1978 to a low of 700 in 1984, when there were fears that plant would be closed.

Since 1984 the plant has grown steadily and Miller attributes that to employees embracing the quality leadership process and their willingness to accept changes that were required in order to succeed.

The plant manufactures products for not only every division within Baxter, but for other companies, as well. In the future, as in the past, new products will be important. Continuing education and training are also critical to compete in the global economy.

“Personally I think we have one of the best training programs in the state,” Miller said. “We are encouraging our employees and offering many, many types of disciplines that we think are going to be required in the future.”

He said the mission of the Cleveland plant is to offer customers a wide choice of lifesaving products, and to be the customer’s first choice in supplying those products.

“It’s heart-warming for employees at Baxter to see first-hand how our products save lives or enhance the quality of lives,” said Lucy Janousch, human resources manager at Baxter Healthcare. “We’ve had patients and doctors come to the plant and talk to us about how they use our products and what they mean to them. Nothing could inspire us more to make a quality product and to strive for continuous improvement.”

Janousch said what impresses most people when they visit the plant is not just how big it is, but how very clean it is. She said someone who has never been in a healthcare manufacturing facility couldn’t appreciate the cleanliness and sterility.

“Of course, when you think about what we make, you know it can’t be any other way,” she said.

Baxter International’s history includes many significant medical firsts: the first commercially manufactured intravenous solutions, the first artificial kidney, the first concentrated clotting factor to treat hemophilia, the first plastic IV and blood-collection containers and the first portable kidney dialysis system.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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