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Transition means fewer jobs but better pay

Choctaw Electronics shifting focus to high technology

CHOCTAW — As usual, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) has found a way to turn a potentially disastrous situation into a creative opportunity.

On June 17, Choctaw Electronics ceased manufacturing operations of automotive loudspeakers for Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler. But the plant is not closing permanently. The MBCI is negotiating with an undisclosed client to move a high-tech manufacturing business into the automotive electronics plant in Philadelphia that employed 200.

“Choctaw Electronics will not go away,” said Bob DePerro, president and CEO of Choctaw Enterprise. “There will be downtime in between, but we’re going high-tech.”

DePerro could not disclose the name of the company, but said there would not be as many jobs. “But they will be higher paying and more technical jobs,” he said.

Choctaw Electronics, located in the industrial park in the Pearl River community, is a joint venture with Harman-Becker International and has been producing the loudspeakers since 1985.

Also under the Choctaw Enterprise umbrella: First American Plastic Molding Enterprise in Ocean Springs, which makes cutlery for McDonald’s and plastic products for other clients, and operates other manufacturing plants in El Paso, Texas, and South Beloit, Ill. All are still operational, said DePerro.

“With First American Plastics, for example, the difference is that we have a whole bunch of different jobs, so we’ve targeted our new business (in Philadelphia) toward clean, more technical solutions for our customers,” he said. “Consequently, you’ve got to shut it down and start it up with something totally different.”

Chief Phillip Martin, 77, who recently won a seventh consecutive four-year term as tribal leader, said that the tribe is losing jobs “as a result, or maybe benefit, of NAFTA.”

“The automotive business we established here will soon be gone,” he said. “Ford Motor Company…has already left. And other projects here will probably be leaving too — American Greeting Corporation and other automotive businesses. So instead of letting that bother us, we’re doing other things…and bringing in higher paying, high-tech jobs.”

Last year, Mississippi lost 117 manufacturers and 11,063 manufacturing jobs. Since the first of this year, the state has been notified that 50 plants would close, affecting 3,867 jobs, according to the Mississippi Manufacturers Association.

Ivy Owen, community development coordinator for the tribe, pointed out that the lost jobs on the reservation are being replaced.

“When we lost 1,600 jobs through Chahta to Mexico, we replaced them with casino jobs and we’re working every day to replace any jobs we lose with higher tech jobs,” he said. “That’s the whole focus of our economic development plan.”

In April, during the second annual technology forum, more than 170 decision-makers from around the nation toured the reservation to get a closer look at the tribe’s diverse business operations. The Choctaw Shift-2 Technology Conference, co-sponsored by the Mississippi Technology Alliance, attracted several venture capitalists that were interested in technology-related projects.

“It’s simply a matter of getting the right capital and management together to make sure that comes to fruition,” said J. Kelley Williams, Jr., a venture capitalist for Greenover Managers, LLC, and CornerCap, LLC, in Jackson, who attended the forum in 2002.

The automotive companies moved their manufacturing operation of automotive loudspeakers to China because it costs less to produce them there and ship them back to the U.S., said Owen.

“We asked ourselves, what business do we really want to be in? What do we think is going to outlast the threat of Chinese or offshore competition? We put a plan together to target products we felt fit that description — food-related or medical-related products, for example,” said DePerro. “That’s the approach we’re taking to solve our potential problems. The other three plants are operating and we’ve taken the same approach with all of them.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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