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Just-in-time manufacturing: Craft-Co keeping pipeline full

MORTON — The Craft-Co plant in this Scott County community is one of those dream industries. They have an awards day for the honor roll children of employees — the award is a $100 savings bond.

And president Jim Finley tells the students, “Bring somebody with you next year.”

Employees participate in both a 401(k) and profit-sharing plan and, along with other citizens, can enroll in GED or college courses taught on company premises by East Central Mississippi Community College faculty. The plant, located on U.S. 80 on the western edge of Morton, keeps attractive grounds enhanced with Bradford pear trees and has received a city beautification award. And Finley actually offers to assist in attracting other industries to the area and state.

All communities should be so lucky.

There’s no braggadocio or bombast about Finley. A soft-spoken bespectacled African-American, he was born in Mobile to a pharmacist father and schoolteacher mother. He attended Xavier-New Orleans, then got his undergrad and master’s degrees in business administration from Central Michigan. He joined Chrysler (now Daim-lerChrysler) in 1957, then Ford, mainly in operations management in Detroit. In 1990, his latent entrepreneur bug struck.

“I was the rebel in my family — I wanted to own my own business, but those golden handcuffs were hard to break,” he remembered. “I had a good job, we had a good living and it was risky outside. But my youngest child was in college and we decided it was now or never.”

So he formed an automotive parts sales business using his previous contacts in the process. Then he heard about 17% of stock being available in Craft-Co, a small auto parts manufacturer. He bought it and began spending some time in the plant. He purchased another 17% interest in 1992, became president and moved to Morton. Recently he bought the remaining shares.

Craft-Co started up in 1988 with 30 employees making wire harnesses for the auto industry. When Finley took over, there were 100 employees — today there are 250 and there’s a mind-boggling array of Craft-Co produced automotive products in a display case in the company lobby.

“We’re one of the few companies that make bushes, switches and wiring assemblies all under one roof,” Finley pointed out.

Tier one customers are GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Jaguar and Saab. When asked about destinations, Finley struggles for an answer. “We ship to plants all over the world including Australia,” he said. Craft-Co is also a Tier Two supplier to a number of other Tier One plants, some as far away as South America. “Our diverse customer base allows us to continue to grow,” Finley said. “One of our customers uses eight million of our parts annually.”

Finley said that Craft-Co is ISO 9001 and OS 9000 certified. “That means we’re certified to do business anywhere in the world and we’re required to renew that certification every six months.” A large banner hangs in the plant congratulating employees on meeting those strict quality standards. And an office wall is covered with plaques and awards for quality and other honors such as “Exporter of the Year.”

As for the latest buzz phrase, “Just in time delivery,” Finley says, “In today’s economy, all customers require that. We keep the pipelines full — for example, we have ‘milk runs’ everyday or every other day to the Saturn plant (in Springfield, Tenn.).”

The national recession resulted in about 40 layoffs last March, but 10 of those employees have been called back, making the current employment 200. “Business is improving some, but it’s still not what it was,” Finley said.

Craft-Co has lost some valuable employees to the new Madison County Nissan plant. “We have a very low turnover, but we lost some quality people to Nissan, including some engineers and group leaders,” he said — without resentment.

When asked why he’s not one of the suppliers for the Nissan plant, Finley said, “That’s a question I struggle with everyday. One of their vice presidents, Jim Morton, visited our plant and was very complimentary and they’ve told us they were surprised to see a plant of our caliber here. They have never been negative.”

Craft-Co doesn’t supply any of the new Mercedes, Honda or Hyundai plants in Alabama either, but Finley’s far from giving up on them — or Nissan. “We’ve been approved to ship some products to the Mercedes plant in Hamburg (Germany), and I’m confident we’ll be included (as a supplier) later.”

Then he points out that his current customers, primarily The Big Three, are declining in market share. “So it’s imperative that we get business from transplants that are growing in sales,” he said. “We are operating at 65% of capacity and it’s obvious we have a solid foundation for further growth. It’s just a matter of time before we work those wrinkles out.”

He has only praise for the Mississippi people. “They have an outstanding work ethic, are loyal, dependable, but for one reason or another many have missed their education opportunities,” Finley said.

Finley’s good works don’t stop at the plant door. He’s recently been appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove as one of the three commissioners of the Mississippi Employment Security Commission. And he’s an active member of two statewide workforce training councils.

“The state’s been good to us,” he said. “It shows in the lack of cuts in workforce training funds. They’re working hard to make sure our people have access to training.”

As for the future, Finley brims with optimism for the state as well as his own operation. “I meet constantly with other auto suppliers and tell them ‘Mississippi is a diamond in the rough — like Craft-Co, we’ll soon be discovered.’ Our state is very pro-business.”

And he takes that attitude down to the local level, too. “I’m willing to meet with any potential new business at anytime,” he said. “When they come here, it helps me, it helps them, it helps our community and increases our tax base.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com.

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