March 16, 2018

German auto supplier plans to expand workforce in Battle Creek

By Tom Henderson of Crain’s Detroit

  • Tier one auto supplier BleiStahl GmbH opened North American operations in Battle Creek in 2013
  • Company employs 83, expects production to reach 85 million parts this year
  • “Significant” workforce expansion likely in coming years

Duane Spurling was the first person hired when Germany-based BleiStahl GmbH, an auto supplier that has been making valve components for the auto industry since 1954, decided, based on a successful pitch by Battle Creek officials, to open up an operation in the Fort Custer Industrial Park in August 2013.

In 2001, the company founded BleiStahl North America LP as a small sales office in Detroit. As sales increased, it made sense to get closer to customers by opening up a North American operation.

In April 2013, the company got a grant of $475,000 from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and a 12-year property-tax abatement worth $532,000 from the city of Battle Creek, based on the company’s promise to invest $11.5 million in a former warehouse facility and create 58 new jobs — a total it has far surpassed.

Spurling previously was an engineer in a Wisconsin factory of GKN Sinter Metals, the North American subsidiary of U.K.-based GKN plc. He was eager to take on the responsibility of growing a new operation from scratch as the plant manager.

“Battle Creek had done a lot to get business to come here,” said Spurling. “BleiStahl had been a supplier to U.S. companies for years, and it made sense to be closer to customers. This is a good location. It’s just two hours away from most of our customers, but German management had to be convinced that Battle Creek was the place to come. They were looking at the cheaper cost of labor down south, but there was more skilled labor here. And (Kellogg Community College’s) Regional Manufacturing Technical Center helped sell management that it could provide training if needed. Eight to 10 employees went through there initially.”

The training center is located in the industrial park. He said the company regularly has employees training there, including 15-20 now.

He said BleiStahl — “stahl” means steel in German and “blei” means lead — began operations in about one-third of the 50,000-square-foot former warehouse. The company now employs 83 there, with production this year expected to hit 85 million parts, up 10 percent from the record set last year. He said a significant workforce expansion is likely over the next three or four years. “We have quite a bit of space left,” he said.

BleiStahl is a tier one supplier to, among others, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and FCA U.S., and Spurling said the plant will soon start shipping parts to a sister plant in China for further machining. “We should ship 200,000 parts to China this year, and we’re projecting six million to seven million next year. We already ship a lot of product to Mexico and Brazil.”

Spurling said German management has been very happy with operations in Battle Creek, a key part of global growth. The company opened its first foreign plant in Brazil in 1974, and expanded into China in 2011.

Spurling said creating a culture that makes employees want to come to work is important to BleiStahl. For example:

  • Portable basketball hoops are being brought in for the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament so employees can enjoy some hoops of their own in an empty corner of the plant.
  • At the end of February it held a wine and canvas night in the factory. “You can’t go wrong with getting drunk and painting,” Spurling joked.
  • The company has a trap-shooting league for gun enthusiasts, as well as group snowshoe treks and hay rides.
  • There is a company Small Council, named for a leadership group in the TV show “Game of Thrones,” that Spurling says is designed to bring some decision-making to lower levels of employment and away from management.
  • Each member of the office staff gets to work from home one day every two weeks.
  • At Christmas, 40 elderly residents of the area are adopted by employees, who pick their names from a Christmas tree, buy them presents and deliver them to their senior center.
  • The company raises money for Royal Family Kids’ Camps, which are camps for kids who have been abused in or neglected by the foster-care system.

“We try to have fun, and we try to make a difference,” said Spurling.