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Snapper plant closing

Employees of the Snapper plant in McDonough were told yesterday the plant will close. Some 475 people are affected. By Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel Bucking a decades long trend that saw many manufacturing jobs migrate to lower-cost Southern states, Briggs & Stratton Corp. is closing a Georgia factory while adding 220 full-time jobs and 150 seasonal jobs at its Wauwatosa plant. Briggs is closing a factory in McDonough, Ga., whose roots date back more than a century. Briggs acquired it in 2004 as part of its purchase of Simplicity Manufacturing Inc. Briggs will move the factory’s production of riding lawn tractors, pressure washers and snow throwers to Wauwatosa in 2015. The move will nearly double the company’s manufacturing workforce at the plant, where employees are represented by United Steelworkers Local 2-232. It will be the biggest jobs increase for Briggs in Wisconsin in years, according to the company. ”I am hoping this is a start of a trend where we see work coming back to Wisconsin,” said Ross Winklbauer, a Steelworkers subdistrict director who was employed at Briggs & Stratton years ago when it had a bigger manufacturing workforce here. Briggs said it made sense to fold the Georgia plant’s Snapper operations into the Wauwatosa factory near the company’s headquarters, where engineering, product research and other departments support manufacturing. The Georgia factory was underutilized, and some of its products are to be eliminated. ”We have not been able to get the McDonough plant running at full capacity for several years. That, and market conditions, have made it even more difficult,” said Laura Timm, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Briggs, the world’s largest manufacturer of small gasoline engines. Briggs hasn’t announced hiring plans yet, but it says the increased production could get underway about a year from now after equipment is moved from McDonough. The company says it will not have to expand the footprint of its Wauwatosa plant to accommodate the additional production. Most of the new jobs will be on the assembly line, although there will be positions for skilled workers in trades such as welding, according to Briggs. Union officials said the full-time jobs will come under their contract with the company, but the seasonal positions will not be represented by the union. The four-year contract, signed in October 2013, called for 2% raises in three of the four years. The closing of the Georgia plant, where workers also are represented by the Steelworkers union, comes as the company narrows its offering of lower-priced Snapper lawn-and-garden equipment to focus more on premium products in the Snapper and Simplicity brands. ”While we have seen improved sales of our lawn-and-garden equipment during our fiscal 2014…we believe it is necessary to simplify our Snapper product line, reduce our offerings of certain low volume and lower-priced Snapper lawn-and-garden products, and reduce the related manufacturing capacity and expenses,” Todd J. Teske, chairman, president and chief executive, said in a statement. Briggs said production of its zero-turn mowers will be moved from McDonough to a Briggs plant in Munnsville, N.Y., but that it would not result in additional jobs at the Munnsville plant. The company said it is in talks with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. ‘” the state’s commerce agency ‘” and Wauwatosa city officials about financial incentives, such as tax credits, that could be available for bringing the 370 jobs from Georgia to Wisconsin. ”I know that Briggs was looking at several different states. They had other alternatives,” said Reed Hall, WEDC secretary and chief executive officer. The McDonough plant employs about 475 people, and Briggs said it will provide outplacement services to those employees. The Snapper plant is one of the largest employers in McDonough, a city of about 25,000 people south of Atlanta. Snapper evolved from companies in McDonough that dated back to the late 1800s. Snapper was acquired by Simplicity in 2002, a couple of years before Briggs bought Simplicity. ”At one point they had more than 1,000 employees here, including the headquarters and manufacturing,” said Bob White, chairman of the Economic Development Authority in Henry County, Ga. The plant closure “is a significant loss for our community because Snapper, and more recently Briggs, have been tremendous corporate citizens. It’s like losing a member of the family; that’s probably the way everybody’s feeling,” White said. In 2012, Briggs closed a plant in Newbern, Tenn., resulting in the loss of nearly 700 jobs there. In 2008, the company had shut down its Simplicity plant in Port Washington, and in 2009 it closed plants in Jefferson and Watertown, eliminating more than 400 jobs while moving some of the Jefferson production to McDonough. As the company consolidated production, White said, rumors circulated that the McDonough plant was in jeopardy. ”It’s been discussed in hushed tones for a while, but it still caught us by surprise,” he said. While moving work from the South to the Midwest is contrary to what many manufacturers have done, it’s not without precedent. In the early 1990s, for example, lawn-and-garden equipment maker Ariens Co. closed a 275,000-square-foot factory in Clemson, N.C., and moved the Gravely brand production to Brillion, in Calumet County, where Ariens has its headquarters. ”I am really glad to see Briggs moving its plant to Wisconsin,” said Dan Ariens, president of Ariens Co. “There are some cost differentials from the Southeast to the North and the Midwest, but when you can consolidate manufacturing in one location, it’s more efficient even if labor costs are higher.”

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