GM’s new manufacturing strategy helps Tennessee town rebound

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Spring Hill, Tenn. – — General Motors Co.’s Spring Hill complex is on a path that may lead to a doubled workforce and become a vision of GM’s manufacturing future.

The town and its namesake auto plant, 35 miles south of Nashville, were home to Saturn manufacturing for more than a decade before GM stopped assembly operations for nearly three years following its bankruptcy. It became a metaphor for GM’s overreach, its fall and now its resurgence.

The factory, designed to be flexible enough to build most any vehicle in GM’s lineup, was promised $350 million in investment, 1,800 additional or retained jobs and two new vehicles. Wednesday, GM is expected to further sweeten the deal.

At an event attended by the governor and other officials, GM is expected to announce additional investment and jobs. It has been widely speculated that the carmaker will move production of the Cadillac SRX from a plant in Mexico to Spring Hill and transfer GMC Acadia production from GM’s Lansing Delta Township plant.

Already, suppliers are planning to build near the plant, in order to improve quality, reduce transportation costs and assure that parts are ready when GM needs them.

Chad Meyer, president of NorthPoint Development which is developing the industrial park, said two companies codenamed “Project Buckeye” and “Project Angus” will move in near GM’s plant, bringing in 400 to 500 jobs, combined. One company is from Ohio; the other was nicknamed because of the cows that used to roam the land where the buildings are going up.

The state revealed last month that ABC Group plans to invest $25.5 million in its Gallatin, Tenn., plant, about an hour away, adding 180,000 square feet and creating 230 jobs. The expansion will increase capacity to build consoles, interior trim and floors for new GMC and Cadillac vehicles to be made at Spring Hill, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

The additional facilities sprouting up around the plant are encouraging to Spring Hill employees such as Marie Johnson, 55, of Columbia, Tenn. She was laid off for several years before returning to the plant a few years ago.

“It was rough,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Johnson sees the two new auto suppliers as a sign of job security.

“It makes me feel more secure and it makes me happy that more people are going to have jobs, too,” she said.

Johnson hopes the hundreds of workers who left their families in Spring Hill to work at other GM locations in the downturn will be able to claim one of the new jobs and return home.

Many are trying to work their way back. Hundreds of workers followed the Chevy Traverse when it went from Spring Hill to Lansing and others transferred to other plants to keep employment. Many opted to rent small apartments and commuted long hours on the weekends to see their families.

Local UAW officials said more than 300 people who had transfer rights have returned to Spring Hill, and others wanting to get back will have to follow protocol with the national UAW agreement.

Big turnaround

The once-small farming town turned major auto center was decimated after GM idled assembly operations at the end of 2009. That also was the year the bankrupt automaker killed off its Saturn brand, which it had launched with great fanfare and claims that it was a “new kind of car company” in which automaker and auto worker would forge a new, cooperative relationship.

GM’s largest manufacturing plant in North America never shut down completely in the downturn. But employment at the complex, once as high as 7,000, fell to below 1,000.

With a new UAW contract, GM resumed vehicle production at Spring Hill in fall 2012. GM invested in a flexible manufacturing operation it says could build any car or crossover. Today, about 180 employees assemble the Chevrolet Equinox at Spring Hill, one of of three GM sites building the popular crossover. One shift at the plant builds four-cylinder versions as needed, as well as special white-diamond color models.

There is lots of excitement and talk inside inside the plant, at the union hall and in town about the investments and hope of more jobs to come. While workers may not officially know until Wednesday or even later what vehicles they will build, construction already is underway to add two trim lines to the general assembly area.

“The buzz is focused on growth and having some new team members join us and get back to the size where we think we should be,” Plant Manager Ken Knight said. “The Equinox is a smaller program for this site.”

The massive complex — once a horse farm that is well landscaped with farmland and rolling hills along the highway — totals 6.9 million square feet on 2,100 acres. The facility also houses engine and stamping plants, plus injection molding and painting operations.

Spring Hill employs about 2,300 workers, including about 1,600 hourly, 300 salaried workers and about 400 from third parties. It has hired about 300 entry-level hourly workers in recent years.

“We’re hiring people out of the community today and we anticipate doing a lot more of that,” UAW Local 1853 President Tim Stannard said.

Overnight boom

Spring Hill was established in 1809 and for a long time was simply a small farming community.

That all changed in the mid-1980s when General Motors and a new brand it would call Saturn announced that the small car company would open a plant in what was farmland.

“This town overnight went from 900 people ... and one restaurant in town ... it went overnight almost to a town that was a bustling town of several thousand people,” said UAW Local 1853 Chairman Mike Herron.

Spring Hill’s population has swelled since. In 1980, Spring Hill’s population was just 986. By 2000, it had grown to 7,115. Today, the city is home to more than 32,000 and is one of the fastest growing areas of the state. The area that once had only a few businesses beyond a gas station and a local watering hole now has strip malls, a Home Depot, Olive Garden and more.

The first Saturn rolled off the production line in 1990 and the last Ions and Vues went off the line in March 2007. Most employees were without a job for about a year while the plant was retooled for Traverse production, which began in September 2008.

When the plant lost the Traverse and was idled, unemployment in Maury County soared. It hit 17.4 percent in June 2009 and in December stood at 14.6 percent. This past June, it was 7.5 percent.

Herron is hopeful employment at Spring Hill will grow substantially — and possibly double — once GM adds the two vehicles.

“The excitement level that’s in this area, the Middle Tennessee area right now is unbelievable,” he said. “Just the hint of the possibility of an announcement at this place has caused the phones to ring off the wall.”

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Inside Spring Hill

GM’s Spring Hill Manufacturing facilities currently produce the Chevrolet Equinox and Ecotec four-cylinder engines. Stamping and plastic-molding operations also take place there.

Spring Hill has received significant investments in the past few years. Last August, $167 million in investments was added to the previously announced $183 million pledge for two future midsize vehicles. In 2011, GM invested $61 million to reopen the assembly plant as a flexible manufacturing operation.

Here are some milestones in the Spring Hill operations:

■July 1990: First Saturn SL Sedan rolls out of Spring Hill plant.

■2000: Ground broken for powertrain plant.

■2002: Production of Ecotec 4-cylinder begins for Saturn Vue and Ion.

■March 2007: Last Vue and Ion roll off line at Spring Hill.

■September 2008: Plant begins making Chevrolet Traverse.

■November 2009: Traverse production moves to Lansing; all vehicle assembly ceases for nearly three years.

■September 2012: Chevrolet Equinox production begins.

■April 2014: 4-millionth Ecotec engine built.

Source: General Motors Co.