Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Chamber: Mercury glass half full

Article from Stillwater News Press
by Monique Headley

Chamber: Mercury glass half full

Stillwater and state officials have done everything possible to entice Mercury Marine to move its Fond du Lac, Wis., operations here, said Larry Brown, president and CEO of the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce.

A deal has not been completed, but negotiations with the marine and recreation product’s parent company, Brunswick Corp., continue.

Four months ago, Brown didn’t believe local and state officials had done all they could to convince Brunswick Corp. officials to merge the Fond du Lac, Wis., MerCruiser plant with Stillwater’s plant.

That’s all changed.

“The issues have been brought forward for future growth ... Opportunities are very solid. We have created very aggressive packages. There is nothing short of being able to buy the company and move it here that we haven’t done, Brown said.

“The waiting is the toughest ... Brunswick has to be responsible and focus on shareholders needs and the future of the company.”

The Chamber, the city of Stillwater, Stillwater Foundation for Progress and Oklahoma state legislators Sen. Jim Halligan, R-Stillwater, and House Reps. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, and Lee Denney, R-Cushing, continue to work with Brunswick Corp. officials. The goal is to:

• Maintain the 385 jobs currently at the Stillwater plant.

• Add the jobs from the Wisconsin plant.

• Keep the more than $100 million Mercury Marine adds to the state economy through suppliers, logistics and transportation vendors, Chamber Director of Economic Development Josh McKim said.

• Maintain the $20 million in research and development that Mercury does in Stillwater. MerCruiser is the largest research and development company in town, McKim said.

• Continue receiving the $45 million in taxes the MerCruiser payroll contributes to state and community coffers.

Mercury Marine’s future is Stillwater, Brown said with cautious optimism. It is a Mercury Marine town, and the local plant produces the highest quality, most innovative sterndrives in the world, he said.

“The quality of the plant is second to none including that of other Mercury plants,” he added.

Of course, the company’s future is moot if the Stillwater plant closes.

“Bottom line, we’ve got to provide an atmosphere for future growth in Stillwater. That’s been our goal for the past six to seven months,” he said.

McKim said talks with Brunswick Corp. began with a simple question, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

He said the results include ways to save on costs and reconnecting the company with Meridian Technology Center for workshops, training and employee assistance.

The U.S. Department of Labor cited the partnership as a best practice model for management and administration of apprenticeship training programs, said E. Brent Chesney, director of Business and Industry Services at Meridian.

Oklahoma is a right-to-work state, and Brown calls it a positive factor in the talks. However, recent unionization of electricians and communications workers means the prospects for unions in Stillwater are unknown.

“The plant has remained nonunion for 35 years. You have highly trained employees who are dedicated to the plant and community. They are treated fairly and received a good wage for a day’s work. Hopefully, going forward, that employee attitude will continue,” Brown said, noting union issues are best left to the company and its employees.

He expressed displeasure with Wisconsin unions’ online comments that suggest Stillwater is trying to steal the Wisconsin facility. Stillwater has 35 years of history with Mercury Marine, he said, and the company has employed thousands of Stillwater families.

“We are not out-of-town opportunists,” he said. “If it was aimed at us, it’s unfortunate the union has taken that tactic.”

Preservation of the Stillwater plant is a primary concern, and Brown and McKim promised to stay aggressive in their efforts.

“We really took a proactive versus reactive position with Mercury Marine ... Brunswick has four operations in the U.S. and two outside. They are operating at a capacity not economically feasible to continue,” he said. “Fundamentally, they have to get their manufacturing footprint realigned ... We are working closely with them to address.”

Brown said the boating industry and economy could turn around in the next 18 to 24 months. When that happens, he said, it would be the right decision for strengthened and expanded Mercury operations to be based in Stillwater.

Brown said he can be contacted at 372-5573 or lbrown@stillwaterchamber.org for to discuss any issues that will not violate the confidentiality of negotiations.

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