OSB Plant Re-Opening Revitalizes Manufacturing in Rural America
When news broke that Huber Engineered Woods was reopening its Spring City, Tennessee plant, it was extra sweet news for Billy Martin and Bryan Little.
Martin grew up in Crossville, Tennessee, about 25 miles northwest of Spring City. He began his career with the Timber & Minerals Division of J.M. Huber Corporation – the parent company of Huber Engineered Woods LLC – in 1978 as Assistant Land Management Forester. In the nearly 40 years since joining the company, Martin has held various positions including Director of Environmental Affairs and Sustainable Resources, Manager of Business Development, Regional Sales Manager in the Pacific Northwest, Georgia and Tennessee, and Project Manager for the construction of the Spring City Plant, becoming Plant
General Manager when the facility opened in 1997.
The economic boom of the 1990s allowed for rapid advancements in technology. The Spring City plant opening marked the first continuous press for OSB production in North America, setting the trend for continuous press technology.
The plant was spearheaded by Martin, who considers it to be one of his greatest accomplishments. The facility opened on schedule and on budget, creating a beacon in the community by providing much needed jobs and a positive financial impact on the region.
However, the road to get there wasn’t always easy. Martin faced many challenges including a small contingency who were concerned that the plant would cause the area to be devoid of trees in 10 years. Community meetings had to take place in both Spring City and Dayton. Plus, there were many heartaches associated with launching a new technology with new specialty products; they learned from manufacturers in other industries to perfect the process. Martin spent many nights sleeping on a cot in his office to maximize his time during the startup phase of the plant. In the end, he wouldn’t have changed a thing, as it was one of the deepest and toughest learning experiences of his career that has served him well in his post-Spring City career.
“I’m extremely proud of the team that launched Spring City,” he said. “The first employees were a core group of intelligent, motivated and eager-to-learn locals that wanted to advance the wood products industry and make a positive impact on the community.”
One of those first employees was Bryan Little who Martin hired to work in the quality department and lab before being promoted to Process Technologist, Press Area Manager and, eventually, Lab Manager.
Little grew up in Kingston, Tennessee in neighboring Roane County, northeast of Spring City. As a young, 20-something employee, he would go on to see his career and the industry flourish during his time at the plant.
“As the plant matured it ran very well,” said Little. “From 2005 to 2010 we became much more efficient, costs were better, and the team and processes were more reliable. All of the products in the ZIP System® sheathing and tape portfolio were trialed at Spring City – it was an exciting time.”
But by 2011 the tides had turned. The impacts of the recession were being felt in the community and across the country. The future of the Spring City plant was uneasy and it officially closed operations that year. Little was responsible for preserving the equipment before leaving to become Technical Director at the Broken Bow, Oklahoma plant. The move uprooted his wife and middle school-aged children who had only ever known Tennessee as their home.
As the years passed, the economy slowly improved and the building industry, which bore the brunt of the downturn due to the collapse of the housing market, was showing signs of recovery. Abandoned jobsites were suddenly becoming active again, and builders were becoming more conscious of the products they used, looking for time-saving options that perform. By November 2016, Huber Engineered Woods announced plans to reopen Spring City.
“The growth of market share for AdvanTech® subflooring and ZIP System sheathing and tape is the real driver behind Spring City’s reopening,” Little said. “The demand for high-quality, high-performance building materials has increased tenfold. Builders like the speed and ease that ZIP System products provide, and they are confident in the longevity of AdvanTech subflooring.”
Martin, who is currently Regional Sales Manager covering Tennessee, says his customers are excited about the plant reopening. Expanded production will make it easier to source product, reduce freight costs and provide a destination for distributors to educate their customers on the company’s product offerings. Though it should be noted that the company didn’t abandon the Tennessee market during the mill’s closure – it proactively and seamlessly serviced customers from its other mills in Georgia and Virginia.
For Martin, it is especially rewarding to not only see the plant he started in 1997 open its doors once again, but have it be led by his former colleague and one of his first employees, Little, who was named Plant Manager for the revitalized facility.
“Bryan is a true expert when it comes to continuous press technology,” Martin said. “I have no doubt that under his leadership the plant – and the community – will thrive.”
The community was hit hard leading up to the Spring City reopening announcement. Two major manufacturers – Goodman Manufacturing and Fujifilm Hunt Chemicals U.S.A. – shut down operations in Dayton, cutting a combined 2,000 jobs for local employees. Huber Engineered Woods’ Spring City announcement was a welcome beam of light for manufacturing in Rea County.
“Our goal is to have a fully operating facility with 150 employees at startup in April 2018,” Little said. It’s been inspiring to see many of the former employees of the plant come back for a second stint.”
As for the community’s concerns that the plant would strip the area of its trees? Those fears were put to rest during the original 14-year run of the facility. Huber Engineered Woods has a steadfast focus on replanting and sustainability, and strict control standards to ensure that the manufacturing of its products has a minimal impact on the environment. The news also was well received by the local timber industry, which looks forward to new business.
“We’ve received nothing but positive feedback about the reopening,” Little said. “Personally, I’m thrilled to be coming home to a community which launched my career and where my wife and I started our family.”
Family is an important part of Little’s life. Founded in 1883, the J.M. Huber Corporation has grown to be one of the largest family-owned companies in the U.S., currently in its sixth generation. He considers his colleagues at Huber Engineered Woods to be family, and maybe someday one of them might actually be – his son has shown interest in Little’s line of work after watching his successes.
“Nothing would make me prouder than to see my son follow in my footsteps,” Little said. “I’m so glad to be home and can’t wait for Spring City’s reopening next spring."
Companies: Huber Engineered Woods