TUPELO — The domestic furniture industry has been under stress from foreign competition, so it is significant that OKIN America, LLC, is expanding its high-tech manufacturing of linear actuators, which are electronic control devices used in recliners, hospital beds, medical lift chairs, ergonomic tables and other applications in the furniture and the medical industries.
“It is good news for Lee County,” said Tommie Lee Ivy, president of the Lee County Board of Supervisors. “It has helped replace some of the jobs lost in the furniture industry, and helps put food on people’s tables. Every job we can get helps Lee County.”
Ivy said since the manufacturing is a high-tech operation, workers need special skills training. That training is being provided by Itawamba Community College (ICC) and Northeast Community College.
“We can train for about any job coming to Lee County,” Ivy said.
OKIN came to Tupelo about two years ago, and recently moved from a 10,000-square foot building into a 30,000-square-foot facility. About 35 jobs were added as a result of the expansion.
Greg Giachelli, vice president of economic development for the Community Development Foundation, Tupelo, said the control mechanism is a growth industry. Lift chairs and other medical devices are a growing segment of the market in the U.S. due to the increased numbers of baby boomers who are retiring.
“OKIN is a supplier to the furniture industry,” Giachelli said. “It is a little different type of niche. We are the upholstery furniture capital of the world. Since we are big in the upholstery business and that sector of the industry continues to grow, we feel like we can manufacture all of the electronic mechanisms and upholstery cheaper than it can be done overseas.”
Before the OKIN plant located in the area, the mechanisms were being shipped in from overseas. To transfer production here, it was important to have a highly-skilled labor force to guarantee a quality product.
“The challenge with a lot of the newer higher tech jobs is finding trained labor,” Giachelli said. “But the thing we have had going for us the past four or five years is a workforce development program partnership with the community colleges that has allowed us to bridge the gap and offer any employee, even while they are working in an existing job, an opportunity to gain further education to garner some of these other jobs that are coming in. Workforce training is probably the most critical element we have been working on for the past five years, even to the point in 2000 we hired our own full-time workforce development coordinator, which is very unusual.”
CDF’s Todd Beadles serves as a liaison between ICC and the other universities and the manufacturing sector. Beadles frequently visits plants to access their workforce training needs, and then coordinates with local community colleges to set up those courses.
Preben Petersen, vice president of OKIN America, said it made sense to expand in Tupelo because of the proximity to its customer base.
“The primary customer for OKIN America is Super Sagless, which is a subsidiary of Leggett & Platt,” Petersen said. “The choice for Tupelo was to provide instant reaction and availability and technical support for the customer, to be present in the market where our customers are. The reason for expanding here is, of course, our initial move into the U.S. was in Tupelo. We decided to expand in Lee County since we are here.”
Originally OKIN America was located in Tupelo to distribute parts manufactured in Hungary and China. Petersen said the company decided it was better to build the parts locally rather than import them.
Peterson said ICC and the workforce group have been tremendous helping OKIN America select and train the right people for their expansion.
“We have added close to 35 people over the past 10 weeks,” Petersen said. “Total employment is close to 40 now. We feel that our products bring some high tech into Lee County. We also feel we want no part of outsourcing trends, but want to bring the products and services of the company closer to the customer rather than having them a five-week ship travel away.”
OKIN America, LLC, is a subsidiary of German-based Okin Ges. fur Antriebstechnik mbH. The grand opening for the new facility in the Tupelo Lee Industrial Park South was in mid December.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.