Despite recent closing, glass makers foresee bright future

Once glass makers cook raw materials sufficiently to make glass, they like to keep the soup hot, running plants around the clock.Early Wednesday, though, Indiana Glass Co. snuffed out the fires under furnaces at the E Street plant in Dunkirk.

In a community nicknamed Crown City a century ago because of its location near the apex of trapped pools of natural gas, just one glass plant is still running: Saint Gobain Container Corp.'s Dunkirk plant.

East Central Indiana had more than 100 glass plants during its gas boom days in the late 19th century. Now, only two major glass producers - Saint Gobain and Anchor in Winchester - remain.

The immediate future for each is secure, according to plant officials

Glass companies face challenges

"Part of what has befallen us is the same story that has affected smokestack industries in America for the past 30 years," said Donald V. Harris, manager of personnel and human resources at Indiana Glass in Dunkirk. "Our industry is not that much different than many others struggling to survive in the modern marketplace."

Like the textile industry in New England and the South, some areas are no longer known for the products they once produced, said Patrick Barkey, director of economic and policy studies at Ball State University.

"Not many tires get made in Akron these days," Barkey noted.

Conditions have been rough for private sector companies, he added.

"At one time, there were probably 2,000 glass workers in Dunkirk," said Harris, an employee since 1979. "Until we closed, there were still more than 600. Glass has been a part of East Central Indiana and Dunkirk for generations."

Indiana Glass, a division of Lancaster Colony Corp., will maintain a sister plant in Sapulpa, Okla., plus a small plant in Lancaster, Ohio. Near Tulsa, the century-old Sapulpa plant has access to cheaper fuel, rebuilt furnaces, and - consequently - lower costs of operations, according to Harris.

"Old-line businesses have shut down all over the state and the country," Harris said. "We have been affected by soft markets, foreign competition and rising costs."

About 50-60 employees will continue to work at Indiana Glass in Dunkirk, making and repairing molds and handling distribution, Harris said. The plant employed about 240 people before the shutdown.

"Things could change," he said. "The market could turn around, but for now the company predicts the closing as permanent."

Saint Gobain might have some openings

Meanwhile, across town, the future looks "very strong" at Saint Gobain, according to company officials.

"We are in the process of preparing for a multimillion-dollar repair of one of our two furnaces this January," said Max Long, human resources director at the plant. "We foresee a good future and anticipate that we will be in business of making food and beverage containers for a long time."

When Long began his Dunkirk career 18 years ago, Kerr owned the plant and 225 people worked there. Now, 460 hourly and salaried employees work at Saint Gobain. Ball-Foster had been an interim owner through much of the 1990s.

"There is some potential to hire former Indiana Glass workers in the spring," Long said. "Their skilled people possess different skills than people at our plant, though, and they would have to hire in at entry level."

Long said there were no plans to increase numbers of employees. About 20 people a year retire, though, he added.

"Anchor and Libbey are our main domestic competitors, and we compete with companies in China, Mexico, Europe and around the Pacific Rim," Harris said of the tableware and giftware produced by Indiana Glass. "Saint Gobain is in the commercial container business and is not a competitor. It makes it on high-volume, high-speed, price-per-piece margins."

Anchor recovers from bankruptcy

Anchor has been through bankruptcy, but that hasn't damaged its relationship with its customers, according to Mark Karrenbauer, in charge of human relations at Anchor's corporate headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

"There were no injured parties, with the exception of the common stockholders," he said. "All vendors, creditors, suppliers of raw materials - and the employees - were paid 100 percent of what they were owed."

Anchor's new "equity sponsor" is Cerberus Capital Management of New York.

"Post-bankruptcy, we are on an extremely positive footing corporatewide," Karrenbauer said.

Wide-mouth jars make up nearly a third of the Winchester plant's production. Bottles for Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and other liquor makers comprise a quarter of Anchor products. The plant also produces food and beverage containers for companies such as Tradewinds, Snapple and ConAgra/Knotsberry.

The Winchester plant has eight sister plants in North America, including a plant in Lawrenceburg.

"We plan on taking care of Alltrista," Anchor plant manager Gary Jarrett said, referring to the Muncie marketing company. "It is our single-largest customer, and we have become their partners for products from quart jars down to salt and pepper shakers."

In an average year, Karrenbauer said, 5 percent of the plant's 340 employees might leave the company. During the past 4 years, though, because of an aging work force, about 40 percent of workers have moved on.

"That's one thing about the glass industry," Karrenbauer said. "Because it has been declining for 20 years, the pool of talented workers has tended to drain as well."

But, Jarrett added, "There is always a need for experienced workers."

Muncie makes sense for Alltrista

The Winchester Anchor plant supplies Alltrista with Ball, Kerr and other home-canning jars, brand names owned by Alltrista, a 1993 spin-off from Ball Corp.

As a marketing company, Alltrista could be located about anywhere, according to Jack Metz, president of Alltrista. But Metz noted that it made sense for the company to stay in Muncie, where its jars are packaged by DIY Group, a business in Muncie's Industria Center.

Jarden, Alltrista's parent company, announced 10 days ago that it would buy Diamond Brands, Cloquet, Minn., out of bankruptcy proceedings. The company is a maker of Diamond matches, Forster plastic cutlery, and other wood and plastic housewares.

"The closure [two-piece lid] plant is here, though, and our company's roots are Ball's old home-canning business," Metz said about the consumer products division headquarters in Muncie. "It is too soon yet to determine what impact Jarden's purchase of Diamond might mean. We'll know more later, after the deal is closed," which he said was projected for January.

"Glass is the package of choice for home-food preservation in order to ensure a safe result," Metz said. "We see that as very solid for the foreseeable future."

600450 Despite recent closing, glass makers foresee bright future

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