ROCKFORD (AP) — For decades the Gunite plant off Peoples Avenue has been a symbol first of Rockford's manufacturing might, then of its manufacturing decline.
The management team of the plant's parent gave an invite-only tour Sunday afternoon of the plant to showcase $55 million worth of improvements in the operation and perhaps make it a symbol of the city's manufacturing renaissance.
"You've driven by the plant. Does it look any different?" Accuride CEO Rick Dauch said after the tour. "No. It doesn't. We wanted to show people that the inside is a totally new operation."
Founded in 1854 as the Eagle Foundry, the Gunite plant is the oldest continuously operating manufacturing business in Rockford and even perhaps the Midwest. Crews make brake drums, disc wheel hubs and rotors, spoke wheels and automatic slack adjusters for such customers as Ford Motor and Daimler Trucks North America.
Gunite, the name the company adopted in 1932, went through a series of owners in the past 40 years. One started machining parts in Elkhart, Ind.; by the 2000s, much of the work on the wheel-end components was done elsewhere.
Employment shrank and management didn't reinvest in the operations, which had grown to more than 600,000 square feet. Accuride acquired the plant in 2005. When the Great Recession hit, large-truck sales plummeted, and it was forced to reorganize in bankruptcy in 2009.
Bondholders took over the company and recruited Dauch, who was CEO of Acument Global Technologies, in 2011 to take over the company. Before accepting, Dauch flew to Rockford to tour the Gunite plant.
He didn't like what he saw.
"This was the worst plant I'd ever gone through, and I'm including places like India and China," Dauch said. "You could tell this place had been neglected for years, and I went back to the board of directors and told them they needed to commit $50 to $100 million in this place."
What was left of the company's workforce wondered about the future.
David Buchanan, who has worked at Gunite for 21 years, said it was frustrating watching the plant slowly fall apart.
"We knew we needed to get management in here with a vision," the president of UAW Local 718 said. "I'm not going to say we were worried it would shut down, but we wanted the company to reinvest, and when Rick got here, you could see they were committed to turning this place around."
Rockford got a little lucky as well. Dauch and his new management team wanted to centralize operations, and building a foundry in Brillion, Wis., or Elkhart would have cost $150 million.
So Accuride, which is based in Evansville, Ind., closed the Elkhart plant and moved the work to Rockford. It moved most of the machining work in Brillion to Rockford, too.
Instead of a 130-mile supply chain, the supply chain is about 130 feet. Almost everything Gunite needs to make its wheel-end components — some castings still come from Brillion — is in Rockford. Officials said 98 percent of the steel and aluminum it uses is recycled because of the foundry. The workforce, which was down to 150 UAW members in 2007, is up to 393 people, with 222 of them hired in the past three years.
The Gunite part of Accuride's operations finally started turning a profit in March.
Dauch said Accuride plans to spend $20 million next year on redoing the foundry, which hasn't been renovated in decades. It also eventually plans to move a warehouse from Batavia to Rockford.
These are all huge wins for the Rockford manufacturing industry, which in January 2010 had 25,000 employees in Boone and Winnebago counties. As of August, it has rebounded to 32,400.
Dauch said there's another reason for showing off the company's reinvestment.
"We'd like the city of Rockford to take a good look at improving the roads around the plant," Dauch said. Peoples Avenue is in one of the oldest sections of Rockford, and the surrounding roads are filled with potholes.
"It'd be nice to not have to worry about our trucks breaking an axle when they come in here."