The future has arrived at Doosan Bobcat’s manufacturing plant in Litchfield.
And the future is, well, big. Big, as in:
The size of it all came to the forefront for employees at the facility last week when Scott Park, Doosan Bobcat chief executive officer, and Mike Ballweber, Doosan Bobcat North America president, visited the plant for a celebratory ribbon cutting and salute to employees, marking the completion of a 15-month construction project.
“(T)here’s a lot of eyes on you, and the eyes are on you because there's been great performance out of this plant,” Park told the 100-plus employees gathered in the now completed, climate-controlled expansion area. “And now we've got a plant three times the size of the original plant, and even more in growth as far as revenue and products coming out the door.
“So, big plans, all coming to fruition,” Park added. “You guys know the plan on what's going to happen to this plant in the coming months. You know, when we built this plant, we were looking way out to 2025, 2026. It looks like 2025 and 2026 is going to come in 2024 and maybe even 2023. So, you know, buckle up. I think we’re in for a great ride.”
The expansion of the plant and manufacturing efforts means growth in jobs, as well. Doosan Bobcat expects to hire an additional 110 full-time, permanent employees by the end of the year to join its current workforce of more than 140 people. That growth includes more than 150 production, manufacturing engineering and operations positions added since the expansion project was announced in November 2019.
Though in the midst of a massive construction project during that time, the local facility has added fabricator, assembler, welder and material handler positions during the past year-and-a-half, according to a company news release.
Oh, and don’t forget — not that you could — all that happened during a global pandemic.
Less than four months after company officials visited Litchfield for a groundbreaking ceremony, the world was gripped by a pandemic. In early April last year, Doosan Bobcat announced a two-week closure of its Minnesota and North Dakota manufacturing facilities, an effort it said at the time was to protect employees’ health, as well as a reaction to the pandemic’s effect on the global economy.
Yet, those precautionary steps didn’t stop the work on the expansion — or, in the end, slow demand for products manufactured at the Litchfield facility, according to Ballweber.
“I mean, second quarter last year, I think a lot of us were wondering,” Ballweber admitted. “But look, at the end of the day, we knew what was different from 2008 (the Great Recession) was, this was artificially created, for lack of a better word, right? The underlying fundamentals of what we follow on the economy — housing starts, construction — all those things are really solid. So we felt, at worst, it was just going to be a timing issue on how quick it would come back.
“And you know,” Ballweber added, “I have a theory that people weren’t going on vacations, they weren’t driving, they weren’t going out to eat. And so they decided to do landscape projects. And I think that’s a lot of really what’s driving the industry right now.”
The expansion, which was completed in January, improves workflow, according to site operations manager Mike Kiefer, and allows Doosan Bobcat to bring work previously done at a facility in Bismarck, North Dakota, to the Litchfield plant.
It is part of a larger expansion and improvement effort Doosan Bobcat is making in U.S. facilities. Among the others are a $17 million investment in its Gwinner, North Dakota, plant, the company’s main North Amercan facility; an $11 million investment in Statesville, North Carolina; and $6 million in facility and manufacturing enhancements in a plant at Johnson Creek, Wisconsin.
At the Litchfield plant, new assembly lines were added and others upgraded, and conveyor systems and a new paint line were added. In addition, the manufacturing area will be climate-controlled, a fact called out by Kiefer a couple of times during Thursday’s event, because of the improved work condition it provides for the workforce.
That’s all important as the facility will produce more than 250 unique Bobcat attachments — from skid steer buckets to grapple buckets, and augers to brush cutters.
For Kiefer, who has been with Doosan Bobcat for 24 years, the last 11 at the Litchfield plant, the expansion is remarkable in many ways, from how it changed the physical facility to the change it will bring in the workforce and in the products produced.
“The product mix has changed substantially over time,” Kiefer said. “A lot of the product that was built here prior to 2012 is actually what’s transferring back here now.”
The investment in Litchfield is an acknowledgment, Kiefer said, of the Litchfield facility’s workforce.
“I think, ultimately, what it came down to is, they saw the workforce that we’ve historically had here,” Kiefer explained. “We have very little turnover. We’ve got, for the most part, long-tenured employees. The performance of this site year-over-year has been very good. So I think they believe that we had the right mindset.”
That existing workforce — and the region’s prospect of providing more employees — were a driving force in the company’s commitment to Litchfield, Ballweber agreed.
“Our HR team did expansive studies of, you know, how far of a radius can we attract people,” Ballweber said. “And it was just a perfect match that we had here. We had a good footprint here. Even prior to the expansion, we look at efficiencies and volumes and safety record of a facility, they were all top notch here. So it made a lot of sense for us to continue to invest in those facilities that are performing that well.”
Growing that workforce is a key, of course, to success of the expansion. And along with the huge capital investment, Doosan Bobcat invested about $400,000 in a mobile training facility for welders, which was parked outside the Litchfield plant last week. The training area, built in a semi-trailer, is equipped to train six people at a time for a two-week course aimed at preparing them to step onto the manufacturing floor when they graduate.
While kicking off Thursday’s event, Kiefer hinted at the weight of expectations for the Litchfield facility and workforce, with a return on investment extremely important.
“Certainly, there’s pressure,” Kiefer said. “That’s what I mentioned … you know, now’s the opportunity to shine here in Litchfield. Because once everything transfers here, we are the primary attachment facility, globally, for Doosan Bobcat. The vast majority of attachments that get shipped worldwide will come out of this facility.
“We all want to be successful,” he added. “We’ve got a great team here, and I have every confidence that we will succeed.”
For Elowyn “Wynnie” Gibson of Darwin, it started with a temperature.
“She had a fever for a couple of days before we took her in,” said her mom Megan. “At the young age of 3 years old, she’d kind of go in and out — a burst of energy and then lethargic and tired when the fever would spike up.”
Wynnie was diagnosed with what was thought to be a minor case of pneumonia. She was sent home and although she was on medication, her fever kept spiking.
“We took her back in,” Megan said. “Her oxygen levels had dropped and she needed to go to Children’s Hospital.”
Fortunately, with no COVID-19 symptoms and Wynnie testing negative for the virus, both parents were allowed to be with their daughter in the hospital.
Her diagnosis was bacterial pneumonia. The infection had eaten a hole through her lung and leaked into the chest cavity.
“When we got there, they did a CT scan,” Megan said. “The infection had become gelatinous. They surgically inserted a chest tube and she was sedated and on a ventilator for four days.”
Treatments were administered through the chest tube, and the infection also drained from the chest tube.”
It was during her 17-day hospital stay in October 2020 that Julie Dengerud, a board member of the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation and owner of Wynnie’s preschool, Mighty Dragons in Litchfield, reached out to the family and shared information about the foundation. Megan said she was familiar with it because a cousin of a cousin’s child had been a recipient a couple of years earlier.
“She told us, ‘We’d love to help Wynnie,’” Megan said. “We applied while we were in the hospital. We faxed the application back to Julie. I had heard of the foundation but I wasn’t aware of how much they do — the auctions and raffles they put on. This year is a little different with COVID. They’re not able to do all those things.”
It was Ralph Johnson, a longtime Tim Orth Foundation supporter, who called Megan with the good news: “We’d love to help you out.”
The financial support from the foundation will be used to pay medical bills Wynnie incurred during her hospital stay and for physical therapy after her release.
Six months after Wynnie’s hospitalization, she has fully recovered from her ordeal. Her mom described her as a “normal child with lots of energy.” The hope is that her bout with bacterial pneumonia was a one-time deal.
When it comes to the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation, Megan has nothing but good things to say.
“Yes, definitely apply,” she said. “Any little bit helps out when a family has bills coming in. We’ve been so lucky to have them.”
Residents of the Harmon Meadows housing development on the east side of Litchfield did not get the change in property valuation they sought.
But they seemed to have grabbed Litchfield City Council members’ attention during their appearance at last week’s Board of Review hearing.
Several members of the development homeowners association attended the April 19 City Council meeting after sending a letter to the Meeker County Assessor’s Office in which they listed 10 factors they believe should result in lower property valuation in the development.
Among residents’ concerns was the development’s private road, Harmon Lane, is in disrepair since the only maintenance it has received was the original layer of bituminous in 2005. In addition, the association’s letter stated, residents pay for snow removal, they receive no mosquito control, have no city streetlights and they live in a mixed zoning area.
However, county appraiser Travis Scoblic said that, based on sales of properties in the development, reduction of valuation was not warranted. Scoblic offered a few examples as part of his presentation. One Harmon Meadows property sold in September 2020 for $246,000, while the county’s valuation for the property was $250,300. Another property, valued by the county at $259,300, sold in September 2020 for $282,750. Three other new construction homes are listed for between $249,900 and $279,900, according to Scoblic’s report.
“I did go back five years and look at all properties, and we’re right on with values,” Scoblic said.
Still, homeowners association members pushed for the change, saying they felt they pay the full brunt of city taxes while receiving only a portion of the services that homeowners in other areas of the city receive — snow removal and street maintenance among the most significant.
However, City Council members and Administrator Dave Cziok responded that as a planned unit development and homeowners association, the group’s issue was with the developer, not the city.
“PUDs are a problem,” at-large Council member Ron Dingmann said. “Unfortunately, this is a legal problem between the (developer) and you. It’s just the nature of PUDs. It’s always going to be a problem.”
PUDs like Harmon Meadows allow, through an agreement with the city, developments that do not adhere strictly to the city’s ordinances, such as the width of a street serving the development. Instead, the developer and homeowners association must maintain the street.
Some Harmon Meadows residents say they didn’t know that, others say that the developer has not lived up to their part of the developer agreement.
Council members were not unsympathetic. But they also did not change their stance.
“This is not the first time we’ve been dealing with the (PUD) situation,” Council member Sarah Miller said, adding that the city needed to more carefully scrutinize future PUD proposals. “We need to be cautious, because this keeps happening. In all honesty, I think you have our empathy. We are hearing you.”
Council member Darlene Kotelnicki, who represents Ward 2, in which Harmon Meadows is located, asked if the city should request guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities on how to handle PUD conflicts. She also asked whether the city could at least send a street sweeper into the development to clean up the deteriorating Harmon Lane.
Cziok recommended against that, saying the city then could become liable for any damages or issues the work might create.
“Sell the dream and service the nightmare … that’s where we are,” Kotelnicki said. “The dream was sold on this development, and now we’re running into trouble. They don’t want this to happen to other citizens. I think that’s a very noble concern that they have.”
Scoblic said the homeowners association could pull together all the information it could in regard to property value comparisons and bring their concerns to the Meeker County Board meeting to make another appeal. At that time, sale prices of the three new construction homes might be known, which could affect the valuation picture in the development.