On Friday, they will feast. They will dance in the streets. The people of DeWitt will celebrate.
When a factory that sent its jobs to China a decade ago reopens, that’s cause to party. And the village of 500, a place whose obituary was practically written in 2008 when its famous Vise-Grip tools went overseas, is hosting a massive throw-down. Come one, come all.
“There’s a lot of buzz in town about it,” said Rich Dike, whose band Custom 20 is playing at the street dance. “The Vise-Grip plant? That was DeWitt’s claim to fame. DeWitt’s name was worldwide. That pride is still there.”
It’s not every day that a manufacturing plant reopens in America. It’s not every day that a U.S. company — Minnesota-based Malco Products, in this case — decides to invest in a small Nebraska town, seeing potential in the community and its workforce. It’s not every day that a company decides that quality and a Made-In-America stamp makes for better business than shipping jobs overseas.
So what DeWitt is celebrating runs deeper than a reopened plant. This is about identity. This is about the future. This is about again reclaiming pride in making something of use, in this case more hand tools, including one to be revealed Friday night. Its name will have a familiar ring: The Eagle Grip. It’s a tool, similar to the Vise-Grip with its locking handle. It would be used in welding and metal seaming.
So the village has prepared: Light poles on Fillmore Avenue, the southeast Nebraska town’s main drag, have been painted royal blue. Storefronts have been spruced up. Tables and chairs have been brought in. The governor is speaking. Some 100 guests from Minnesota are coming.
But like a good friend of mine who is newly divorced and starting to date again, the people of DeWitt are partying with their eyes wide open. They are hopeful but wary.
Expectations are tempered by the fact that the factory probably won’t be a place where hundreds of workers cranked out tons of tools. So far, Malco has nine on the payroll in DeWitt.
Malco President and CEO Mardon Quandt says hiring will ramp up but he’s not sure yet how many people the company will need in Nebraska. It won’t be as many as in the past — 750 at its peak about three decades ago.
“Additional jobs will depend on where the business goes,” Quandt said. “We’ve got to play that by ear. We really at this point would be guessing. It really depends on what type of volume we’d be producing out there.”
Malco produces some 1,200 professional-grade tools that are not typically the big-box cheapos for the average weekend warrior. Malco sells about 10 tools at Home Depot, but Quandt said you have to know where they are in the way-back of the store. Malco has plans for DeWitt to make six versions of the Eagle Grip.
Quandt said the small workforce there now is working through production processes. He wants to perfect prototypes and see how well the Eagle Grip performs at a national hardware conference in May before making promises on hiring.
Connie Fishburn, owner of DeWitt Quick, a convenience shop that opened when DeWitt’s grocery store folded after the factory closed, said she’s thrilled Malco has come to town. She’s hoping for the best, hopes Malco will make “a big difference for DeWitt,” and wants the economy to bounce back.
She’s got two concerns.
One is progress. Malco bought the old Vise-Grip plant in early 2017, and Fishburn, who is on an invite-only list to a dinner for 250 inside the factory Friday night, is eager to see how quickly the plant can ramp up hiring.
Second, workforce. She said her two sons own a construction firm based in DeWitt and Lincoln that has struggled to find workers because of the state’s unemployment rate — 2.8 percent — is one of the lowest in the United States. She wonders: Will workers come to DeWitt?
Randy Badman, DeWitt village chairman and former tooling manager at the old Vise-Grip factory, said that was an early Malco question too.
“I told them, ‘No. You won’t have trouble finding them,’ ” he said. And so far that has borne out: people come to the front door and ask for work.
“I’m pretty sure HR has a stack of applications,” he said.
Ron Packett, one of the nine employed at Malco, believes the plant will attract workers like him. Packett, 52, lost his Vise-Grip tool room job in 2006. He was then a 20-year employee and age 40. He scrambled to find another job.
He wound up making fruitcakes for a Beatrice bakery which got him 10 seconds of fame on The Food Network but meant his paycheck was cut in half. Packett bounced to other manufacturing jobs and lives in Beatrice.
When asked to interview for one of the few early jobs offered by Malco at the old plant in DeWitt, he jumped. When hired, he had to move to Minnesota for 6½ months of training. Meanwhile, Malco poured over $1 million into fixing up the DeWitt factory, which had been turned into a giant garage for people’s cars, boats and campers.
“It was dirty. It was dusty and had cobwebs and broken windows,” Packett said.
Malco spent the last year and a half stripping the building clean. The electrical system was replaced. The water heaters were removed. A new lobby was created with new carpet, furniture and bathrooms. The tool-room floor got cleaned up and recovered.
Packett said he’s asked all the time about hiring by hopeful prospects.
“I’ll be walking through Walmart,” he said, and people will approach him asking when Malco is going to start hiring.
The prospective workforce was a big draw for Malco’s Quandt, who saw in southeast Nebraskans a similar culture to the community of Annandale, Minnesota, where Malco is based. Plus, the State of Nebraska offered $500,000 in a matching grant.
He liked that there were experienced tool-makers around and “the rural Nebraska mentality,” which he said meant “a strong, Midwestern work ethic” and a desire to see the company succeed. Of the nine people on the DeWitt staff, seven are former Vise-Grip workers.
“Knowledge and experience,” said Quandt.
In a statement emailed by spokesman Taylor Gage, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said the reopened plant brings back “great opportunities” and “helps build on the community’s legacy of building things and making things.”
Packett says he is now back to earning what he did at Vise-Grip a dozen years ago. He says he’s hopeful that the reopened plant is a lure for other businesses that see the same qualities in southeast Nebraska that Malco did.
He said success breeds success, something he learned as a kid working at the A&W. Employees were encouraged to park their cars right outside that little restaurant, he said, to lure customers. People stay away from empty lots but gravitate toward places that look happening.
Fisburn said that whatever happens, DeWitt is resilient.
“I remember when the plant closed. Everybody said DeWitt was going to fold up and die,” said Fishburn, who lives in nearby Wilbur but opened her business in the heart of DeWitt.
“But they haven’t,” she said. “They have kept going.”
Badman is optimistic. He said Malco’s arrival has been a morale-boost.
“We’re starting out slow, and that’s how it’s going to be. But we’re sure excited that they’re starting out,” he said. “Starting out is better than a cold building with nothing in it.”
That is cause to toast. And to dance.