Last month, Caterpillar Inc. announced that it would be closing its forest products plant in Owatonna, Minn., and moving operations from the factory to plants in Prentice and LaGrange, Ga.
John Carpenter, president of Caterpillar’s Forest Products Division, explained in a news release that the decision to consolidate plant operations came as “the result of a need to make our business more efficient and competitive.”
Prentice Hydraulic Loaders
Prentice Hydraulic Loaders
Production is set to gradually move out of Owatonna and into the other two plants making up the Caterpillar Forest Products Division between now and March 2013.
Around 100 employees will lose their jobs as a result of the Owatonna plant closure, though some engineering work will remain in the Owatonna area.
Caterpillar Spokeswoman Rachel Potts said that the company can’t say yet how the consolidation of operations will affect employment levels in Prentice. They’ll be taking a look at what manpower is necessary to continue meeting their ship dates and commitment to customers as production is transitioned to the plant, according to Potts.
As far as changes to the Prentice facilities go, the company plans to relocate a large CNC machining center to “improve flow in the weld shop,” Potts explained. Caterpillar has been holding employee workshops to prepare them for taking on additional products transitioning over from the Owatonna plant.
Though it’s not yet clear how the consolidation will affect future employment levels in Prentice, there’s no questioning the impact Caterpillar has on the local economy today.
“It gives us a rock solid foundation in our community,” Prentice Industrial Development Corporation President Dale Heikkinen said.
The plant is the biggest employer in Prentice, offering a mix of full-time and part-time positions to 170 workers.
Caterpillar’s Prentice plant doesn’t just put the town to work; employees come in from a radius easily covering 30-miles around Prentice, with workers calling everywhere from Park Falls to Medford and Tomahawk home, Heikkinen said.
Along with the positions at the plant itself, a number of “cluster businesses” in Prentice and surrounding communities do fabrication and other work supporting operations there, as Heikkinenexplained.
He points to one business in Prentice’s network of industry supporting industry currently in the midst of an expansion; The G.A. Miller Company’s new, larger facility is under construction in a field near the intersection of Highway 13 and Old Highway 8.
As Heikkinen sees it, the big name company’s presence could also serve as a draw for people looking to relocate, leading them into the Northwoods.
Then of course there’s the impact of Caterpillar on the local tax base to consider, Heikkinen said.
The Prentice-based timber harvesting equipment business got its start in 1945 under Dale’s father Leo Heikkinen. That business, branded as Prentice Hydraulics, was sold to Omark Industries in 1967 and then to Blount International in 1985. By 2007, Caterpillar Forest Products had closed its purchase of the Prentice plant. Blount had been manufacturing and selling Caterpillar brand forest products as well as offering marketing and product support for Caterpillar forestry dealers since 2003 under an arrangement between the two equipment companies.
Over the last five years, Caterpillar has invested more than $7 million in the Prentice facility; adding new systems for laser cutting, robotic welding, painting and machining.
In addition to his hydraulics business, Leo Heikkinen started the Prentice-based manufacturing company Multitek Inc. along with his sons Dale, Howard and Norman.
The business has since been purchased by an investment group and is now known as Multitek North America LLC.
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