The head of the Mitsubishi Auto plant in Normal said this has been his most difficult year of more than four decades in the auto industry. The company laid off most of its workforce last year and the final hundred plus workers at the facility will lose their jobs at the end of the month.
Jerry Berwanger has been the Plant Manager at Mitsubishi in Normal for 12 years. He has been with Mitsubishi Motors North America for 17 years and in the automotive industry for 44. In another of our continuing series of interviews with former and current Mitsubishi workers, Berwanger said the final closing of the plant at the end of the month is a big loss for him, just as it was for all the workers laid off in November, and for the final few dozen that have stayed on.
He said he had planned to retire, but was asked to stay on for another year as labor contract negotiations were coming up. Then he was told the plant would close and he said it was like "a punch in the gut." Berwanger said he tried to form a good separation package to acknowledge a superb workforce.
Berwanger also praised the plant workforce as the best he has seen in his time in the industry. He said even after the plant closure was announced, there was no change in the absentee rate and the quality ratings of cars that came off the line actually improved. Berwanger said he gives a blanket endorsement to hiring any worker at the plant.
In the ten months since the closure was announced, a task force formed and has worked to market the plant. Mitsubishi recently sold the plant to an industrial liquidator who will sell off the equipment and do its best to find a new owner. Berwanger said he gets upset when he hears people say the task force cultivating prospects for new plant ownership failed to do its job. Berwanger was the contact point for prospective firms.
"There was a lot of interest. I'm the one that flew to New York, Washington, Detroit, Chicago. I was in meetings with them. There was a lot done. We had a lot of people come through," said Berwanger.
Berwanger said he has seen six automotive firms come through the plant, a couple of farm implement manufacturers, and two major supplier firms.
He said new owner Maynards Industries has taken over conducting the tours and has already begun marketing the plant.
Some area lawmakers have argued that the lack of a new owner is an example of the adverse business climate in the state. Berwanger also said it's not true in his experience that firms took a pass on Mitsubishi because of the state budget crisis.
"I'll tell you the people that came to visit us. They knew we were UAW. They already knew what the state of Illinois work(ers) comp and taxes were. They had already done their homework," said Berwanger.
Berwanger said no one told him they were not going to buy the plant because of business conditions in the state. He said most related that the plant was too big for their needs.
Berwanger said he has received some offers to consult after the plant closes and he retires from Mitsubishi. But, for now, he said he will just rest.