By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. opened its Tupelo manufacturing plant 30 years ago, and officials say an investment by the state will help secure its future.
For weeks, leaders with the Findlay, Ohio-based tire manufacturer, along with local leaders, have lobbied the Legislature to issue $20 million in bonds to secure equipment upgrades at the facility.
State money would be used to purchase the sprawling facility, and Cooper would use those funds, along with its own money, to modernize the plant. Lee County is expected to provide another $18 million to Cooper in the form of tax breaks over 10 years.
Cooper Tire has invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the years in Tupelo, including $70 million since 2010.
The Daily Journal spoke to Tupelo plant manager Robert Haggerty, an 18-year veteran of the facility who got his start on the shop floor for the company. He took over reins of the plant on Jan. 1, and helped explain Cooper’s plans.
Q: With state and local funding supporting Cooper’s investment, explain what the company is trying to do.
A: The main purpose is to be globally competitive. We’re in a position now where we have to be that way. The industry has become global, and to compete and be successful, we have to modernize our equipment. We’ve seen what automation can do, we’ve seen what modern equipment can do. This is an opportunity for Tupelo to have that and be globally competitive.
Our corporate leaders have picked Tupelo to do that.
It’s an exciting time for me and for the people inside this plant because they (Cooper’s leaders) have the faith in us to be globally competitive. To see this happening in your own facility is a great thing.
Q: Is the $140 million Cooper has said it will invest set aside for Tupelo only or is it the amount Cooper plans to spend company-wide among all its facilities?
A: It’s $140 million to Tupelo. The incentives Cooper is asking for are the starting point for us to invest that money here over a period of time.
Q. While it appears Cooper will get what it’s requesting from the state, what would happen if it didn’t happen? What would be Cooper’s response?
A. Cooper Tire would look elsewhere to make its investment. We would keep going on here in Tupelo. But it’s something we would have to access globally. We have facilities in Mexico, China and elsewhere and here in the states where we would determine where to make that investment.
But Cooper Tire wouldn’t close Tupelo down. We’d continue what we’re doing, but that modernization plant would be put in place somewhere else.
Q. So Tupelo is Cooper Tire’s first choice as far as investing this $140 million modernization plan.
A. Yes. Which says a lot about this workforce. They’re dedicated to safety, quality and every measure you can stack up. I know what they can do, and I’m excited at the opportunity of what could happen.
Q. Without getting into specific equipment, what’s involved in the modernization plan?
A. It’s an improvement throughout the entire process here, but especially with equipment, using new technology that’s out there.
Cooper has invested in this plant before, and it’s gone beyond those previous commitments. We’re up to 1,600 employees now, for example, and we’re talking about keeping at least 1,300 jobs for 10 years, if not more.
We’ve seen what some of this equipment can do, and we know the capabilities of our employees, and that has everyone excited.
For us to sit here and know that the company is looking at Tupelo for its future, that’s a pretty strong statement.
Q. Was this modernization plan in place before the failed Apollo merger last year, was it brought up during merger talks, or was this a recent development?
A. They’ve been ongoing, whether the merger was happening or not.
We were a strong company going into the merger, and we’re doing this modernization to stay strong, to be globally competitive.
Q. Assuming everything falls in place, how soon will the modernization plans be implemented?
A. We’re talking about a five-year plan, a 10-year plan and not all at once. It’ll be a slow process because we’ll still be producing tires for our customers. But this will help us produce better tires and keep those production numbers up as well. It’ll be a structured process.
Q. Is part of the modernization plan to help this plant produce tires and become a larger OEM supplier? (Editor’s note: an original equipment supplier is a company that directly supplies an automaker. Traditionally, Cooper has been a replacement tire maker, though it did strike a deal last year to be an OEM supplier for a couple of Ford vehicles.)
A. That’s part of the opportunity of the modernization plan. We are in the OEM market in China, but the plan would give us that opportunity here.
The plant itself is very stable and doing well. … but the exciting part is that with this modernization process, we’ll be taken to the next level. This will make us more efficient, more productive, it’ll make us safer from an ergonomic level and we’ll build a better quality tire. And, importantly, it will open us new avenues for our facility here.