BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
For more than a decade, the community knew Huf-Tennessee as a solid local industry that kept a low profile and employed as many as 200 Greene Countians.
Then, about two years ago, Huf North America announced it would close the Greeneville plant.
A few months later, that decision was reversed for reasons that remained a bit of a mystery to most of the community.
On Thursday, a new announcement came -- a $20 million expansion to the Greeneville plant with the planned addition of at least 100 new jobs.
"This roller coaster needs some words of explanation," said Michael Supe, president & CEO of Huf North America, during Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony.
The decision to close Greeneville's plant came at a time when Huf was under "huge pressure" to reduce prices, Supe said.
"Therefore we were forced to go to Mexico. It's a shame to talk about, moral-wise, but it is a low-cost country in regard to labor costs," he said.
The company expected to "suffer a high turnover" with the plant's closure.
"Instead, we could identify that, here in Greeneville, we could count on our employees, like a big family," Supe said.
"They did not hesitate to give us a clear sign that they would not hesitate and that they would stick together -- not only in good times, but in bad times as well."
This prompted the company to reflect on its "worldwide" strengths, Supe said, and to "force" Huf's Detroit department to increase sales in outer-door handles.
"The major decision to keep [the] plant [in] Tennessee open [...] was in the awarding of $2.5 million in painted door [handle] sales for Ford, fully established now in our plant here in Tennessee," he said.
With this confidence to move forward, Supe noted that the company continued to acquire additional accounts for these outer-door handles, including a contract to supply every BMW plant worldwide.
"It makes no sense to capitalize $20 million and to be prepared for just two to three years," he added of the company's commitment to Greeneville.
"One of our strategic goals for Huf North America [...] is to become the market and technology leader of painted, outer-door-handle business in North America," Supe said.
Therefore, the management decided it was time to move a step ahead of the competition.
Huf decided to accomplish this by implementing the technology to provide environmentally friendlier painting using water-bonding, a method not yet in use by the company's American competition, he said.
While the factory will also be able to meet the current requests for solvent-bonding, it will be as simple as turning a switch when the demand comes for the environmentally-friendly processes, he added.
Moreover, the painting process will also include America's popular tri-coated colors, with a primer, base coat and clear coat.
Greeneville was ideal for becoming the company's centralized North American location for distribution under the lowest freight costs, he added, due to Greeneville's centralized transportation location in the Southeast.
"Let me point out that the above-mentioned argument to decide pro Greeneville was underlaid by a tremendous, tremendous support from both the city of Greeneville and the state of Tennessee," Supe said.
The expansion is scheduled to be complete in 2013, with customer deliveries beginning in 2014.