STERLING – In recent years, many of Astec Mobile Screens' new customers are from other countries. U.S. business, meanwhile, hasn't grown as much.
That's because the United States is spending less on roads and bridges, where Astec's equipment is often used. The Sterling factory wants more investment in such infrastructure.
On Thursday, the company made its case to Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, who is calling for more spending on roads and bridges. Executives gave her a presentation and a tour of the plant at 2704 W. LeFevre Road.
The company, a division of Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Astec Industries, employs 120 people and had nearly $18 million in sales last year. It is on pace to exceed that level this year.
Astec makes equipment that screens rocks that are put into concrete mixes. It also makes equipment for crushing gravel and other materials that are used for building roads and foundations for houses.
Astec Mobile Screens started in the 1970s as Production Engineered Products in Walnut. Back then, President Tim Gonigam said, its international business typically was accidental. These days, it makes up 40 percent of the company's sales.
During the tour, one of the executives pointed to a large piece of equipment that workers had just built. It was headed to South Africa.
In 1997, Astec Industries, a nearly $1-billion-a-year corporation, bought the Walnut company. A couple of years later, Astec Mobile Screens moved from Walnut to Sterling.
"Why Sterling?" Bustos, a former newspaper reporter, asked during the presentation.
One reason was that businessman Pete Dillon had a building on LeFevre Road that was set up to be a factory, and that was better than what the company had in Walnut, Gonigam said.
The other reason, he said, was that the company had a much larger talent pool from which to draw in Sterling-Rock Falls, which is 15 times larger than Walnut.
Bustos also asked whether it was hard to find employees with the right skills.
Gonigam said yes. It is easier to find welders than assemblers, he said.
Heather Sotelo, executive director of the Greater Sterling Development Corp., added that local programs have helped train residents to become welders. Local companies, she said, always need them.
Gonigam said Astec deals with some of the same problems as many area companies – for instance, tardiness.
"It costs us money when you're not here at work," he said.
A bar graph shows the company took a hit from the recession, but bounced back.
Just as the economy collapsed in 2008, executives said, the plant had just hired its 100th employee. Now, the company has 20 more workers than that previous high.
The company has 10 to 15 competitors, most of them outside the United States, said Patrick Reaver, the plant's manager.
Bustos said she was pushing legislation that would give a preference to U.S. companies involved in infrastructure projects.
"American companies would get a leg up on [international] competition. You should be aware of that," she said.
Gonigam said other countries have long envied American infrastructure, but the U.S. is lagging now.
"Our infrastructure is what makes us free to move from point A to point B," he said. "We have to invest in that."