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A town renewed: Factory in tiny DeWitt, Nebraska, putting tools on the market again

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15 US cities with the highest shares of employment in manufacturing.

DEWITT, Neb. — As 1,300 tons of force pounded steel into tools here last week, every bang was a welcome sound for a southeast Nebraska town eager to get back into the manufacturing world.

Just two weeks ago, Malco Products launched sales of its Eagle Grip line of locking pliers, produced in the same plant that turned out the similar Vise-Grip tools for generations.

Vise-Grip had been a source of community pride since William Petersen invented the signature product and opened the plant in 1924. But that pride took a hit back in 2008, when corporate owner Newell Rubbermaid outsourced production of Vise-Grips to China. The move cost about 330 employees their jobs and left the town of almost 500 people searching for an identity.

Malco, a 70-year-old company based in Annandale, Minnesota, has been working since 2016 to acquire the old Vise-Grip factory and start producing the new Eagle Grip line of industrial tools in DeWitt.

Malco President Rich Benninghoff said it’s the start of a new era for his company.

“Reinvigorating the DeWitt facility has been a full-team company effort,” he said. “There’s been a lot of collaboration and team involvement in getting the products to the shelves.”

The four Eagle Grip products launched so far are currently available on Amazon. Benninghoff said plans are in the works to sell Eagle Grip products through other retailers.

The DeWitt plant formally reopened in October 2018 with a town celebration. Since then, Malco has invested tens of millions of dollars into renovating the factory, purchasing the equipment and materials and, of course, hiring a local workforce.

“It took us from 2018 until now to get to the quantity and quality that we liked and wanted to sell,” said Eric Peterson, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

Malco’s investment was bolstered by a matching $500,000 grant from the state’s Nebraska Advantage program.

For the DeWitt community, the Eagle Grip product launch completes the journey back to being a place of manufacturing prowess.

“When the town found out somebody was interested in that building, there was a buzz that has been going on ever since,” said Randy Badman, a 72-year-old lifelong DeWitt resident who serves as a consultant to Malco. “Everybody was so excited.”

DeWitt residents and Eagle Grip employees say Malco’s employment practices have reinforced their optimism. Malco has provided workers with salaries, benefits and incentives, along with the family atmosphere they once enjoyed under the Petersens’ ownership.

“Malco is so identical (to the Petersen family), it’s actually scary,” said Badman, a former tooling manager for Vise-Grip. “The Malco company treats their employees just like the Petersens did. They make you feel so comfortable.”

Those who work at Eagle Grip are not just employees, but also investors. Each employee has an ownership stake in Eagle Grip, allowing them to earn bonuses each quarter and year, provided that the company meets its goals.

While the days are long gone when the majority of DeWitt’s workforce could count on a job at the local factory, Malco has vastly exceeded the state’s requirement that the company hire 30 employees within three years of the October 2018 reopening. Just 2½ years later, about 60 employees are on the Eagle Grip payroll. Fifteen of those employees worked for Vise-Grip.

Crediting the strong work ethic of Nebraskans, Peterson said Malco looked to fill a void in the market, which had been saturated by locking pliers shipped from overseas — tools derided as cheap by local employees — but offered few by American manufacturers.

“There was a pretty severe outcry for high-quality locking pliers again,” he said. “We saw that as an opportunity.”

The company’s products have already drawn five-star Amazon reviews. Eagle Grip employees say customers can expect quality from their products.

“We might even be above where we used to be” under the Petersens’ ownership, said former Vise-Grip and current Eagle Grip employee Lyle Fink, 55. “These tools are the strongest on the market.”

Fink cited advances in technology and materials for the improved products. The factory produces and ships about 300 to 600 tools each day.

“For the average person, these could be the last tools you’ll ever need to buy,” said plant manager Kurtis Voelker.

As Malco intends to launch five more Eagle Grip products throughout the year, other businesses in DeWitt have also benefited from the factory restarting production.

Connie Fishburn, manager of the downtown convenience store DeWitt Quick, indicated that the increased business sparked by factory employees is allowing her to explore different items to sell, including craft beer.

“It’s definitely good to see production come back and not see the building sit empty anymore,” she said.

Village Clerk and Treasurer Moria Holly said that it’s too soon to say exactly what kind of impact Eagle Grip will have on the town’s tax revenue but that the plant is almost certain to improve the fiscal health of a town that, according to Badman’s estimations, has seen property tax valuations decline by about $8 million since the plant closed 13 years ago.

“The fact that the factory is there will increase our property valuations,” said Badman, who has served 31 years on the Village Board.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist Eric Thompson said DeWitt’s recent rebound fits into a larger story about the manufacturing industry in Nebraska, which is projected to add 3,200 jobs this year after losing 2,200 in 2020.

The state has about 100,000 manufacturing jobs.

“It’s wonderful news they were able to find a new tenant for that facility in DeWitt,” Thompson said. “But it isn’t uncommon to find new tenants for facilities that fall out of use. The experienced, skilled workforce is still there.”

Last year in Nebraska, according to Thompson, the average manufacturing floor employee earned $40,560 per year.

“Those manufacturing facilities generate middle-class jobs,” he said.

DeWitt residents are glad to have the local factory up and running again.

“It’s nice to have employment back in town,” Holly said. “I know it’s been a huge relief for a lot of people who live in DeWitt to have that workforce back in town.”

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