American Seating never left

February 5, 2012
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About 120 employees at American Seating Co. logged at least two hours each over two happily chaotic days to prepare for Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the manufacturer’s west side Grand Rapids plant last week.

Out of the blue, the vice president’s advance team contacted David McLaughlin, the company’s vice president of transportation sales, late in the week prior to the visit to let him know that Biden had decided to drop in on American Seating. McLaughlin let the company’s executive team know what was about to happen, and he and Director of Operations Marc VanderVelde and Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Deb McDermott began to prepare for the visit.

“It really was the three of us who kind of coordinated the efforts, and we were directed by the very competent advance team from the vice president’s office,” said McDermott, who added that McLaughlin served as the point person for the extraordinary event.

“The rest of us really started to get involved in the preparations on Monday morning,” she said. “We had kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach — probably 120 employees but not all of them working all of those hours, maybe two hours each. So it was really a shared workload.”

McDermott said the facilities staff had to make sure that the plant could accommodate the electronic needs of the press, which included reporters from across the country. They had to create a media area and a seating section for employees and local officials, and set up a stage for the vice president, along with an appropriate backdrop. The plant workers had to clean and organize the area, while also making sure finished orders got shipped out to customers.

“My team worked on press interaction, getting the background information of all the folks that would be interacting with the vice president to the advance team so we could be cleared — that kind of prep,” said McDermott. “We had the marketing folks, the public relations folks, the operations folks, the facilities folks and the sales folks all helping. So it was a busy couple of days, but it was so worth it.”

Prior to addressing the crowd, which was estimated at 300, Biden toured the transportation plant where American Seating makes seating for buses and trains. McDermott said John Burns, the plant’s supervisor, told her that the vice president was very engaged during the tour. Burns also said Biden was somewhat astonished, but pleased, that the company has kept all its production here at a time when many other manufacturers haven’t.

“He questioned how we had been able to do this: stay committed to domestic and local manufacturing. He was pleasantly surprised that we had not outsourced any manufacturing. He was very pleasantly surprised that we’ve been able to maintain our primary manufacturing presence here, that there is no offshore manufacturing. We have resisted that choice,” said McDermott of shipping jobs overseas.

“He did mention that he was also impressed with 75 percent of our supply base being in the Indiana, Michigan and Ohio area.”

As for his address, McDermott was impressed with what Biden had to say, but she was most impressed when he recognized that American Seating has kept its manufacturing operation here and, in turn, also kept its commitment to the community.

“That was most important to us as a company. He said, ‘American Seating never left,’ and I love that quote. That meant a lot to us. He referred to how important manufacturing in the U.S. was, not punishing those who keep jobs here,” she said.

“Another quote, I believe, that was attributed to him was, ‘One way to bring back the American promise is more manufacturing jobs.’ It just validated the decisions that we’ve made.”

In President Barack Obama’s recently delivered State of the Union address, he said he wants Congress to eliminate the tax break that companies have been receiving for outsourcing work and transfer that break to firms that make products in the U.S.

So in the larger-picture sense, what does being chosen from among manufacturing firms across the country to host Biden’s visit mean for American Seating?

“Well, first, it’s quite a boost to have an endorsement from the vice president and have him recognize the conscious choices that we’ve made to keep the manufacturing here,” said McDermott. “And we hope to be able to take that message to all of our customers, just reinforcing that we are American-made products.”

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