The Belgian manufacturer opened its Rome plant a little more than 40 years ago.
Leo Leander Bekaert founded Bekaert in 1880 in Zwevegem, Belgium.
The company came to Rome in 1969, according to plant manager Gary Downey. The company has a presence across the globe, serving customers in more than 100 countries.
The Rome plant manufactures bead wire for automotive tires as well as hose reinforcing wire used in hydraulic hoses.
Downey, who came to the Rome plant from another company plant in Dyersburg, Tenn., said the future looks good for Bekaert.
Revived reliance on domestic supplies
“The interesting thing about the tire business is that we’re starting to see a bit of a resurgence,” Downey said.
He said there’s beginning to be a shift from the era when all the focus in the industry seemed to be on plants announcing that they were planning to shut down, outsource work or build new facilities in China.
“Here the last couple of years, almost all of our customers have announced either brand new tire plants or expansion of existing plants, which is excellent to see that market coming back to the United States,” said Downey.
During its heyday, the Bekaert plant employed close to 600 workers. While not citing a specific number, for competitive reasons, Downey said the number of employees is significantly less than that today.
“That just reflects a change in the business,” he said. “We had some consolidation of businesses and that sort of thing. Obviously we’ve become a lot more efficient too.”
Why has the situation for tire makers changed in the United States?
Downey feels a lot of Bekaert’s customers don’t want to deal with the supply chain issues.
“If you’re ordering something from China, you’ve got two months of material that could be sitting in a Chinese plant, on the water or at a port,” he said.
If a company makes a purchase directly from an offshore supplier, they take ownership of the good at that spot, he said.
So, the whole logistics issue can be very expensive with ships getting tied up in stormy seas, or having to deal with labor issues in certain ports.
“If you have something like that happen, and you’re depending on that ship to show up and offload what you need to make your products, that’s scary,” he said.
Modernized production, products
Downey said changes in the automotive industry also are prompting some changes in production for the local plant.
“The push for more fuel-efficient cars results in a lot of automobile manufacturers trying to use lighter-weight materials,” he said.
“Obviously they’d like to lighten the tire up, so they try to get by with less weight in terms of steel in the tires. In order to do that, what they do is go to a smaller diameter wire.”
Those are the types of changes that impact Bekaert.
“You end up with a tire that’s just as good, but it’s got less steel in it, which lowers your cost and helps with the fuel efficiency as well,” Downey said.
The industry Bekaert serves is extremely competitive, yet Downey said he sees some real opportunities for Bekaert with the expansion of the tire plants in the U.S.
“They are going to be needing more wire going forward,” he said. “I think the hose market — we have a pretty good share of the hose market, and they seem to be doing fairly well, so I feel pretty good.”
The Rome plant manager said Bekaert exports some of its finished goods, but 98 percent of its business is domestic. Raw materials are sourced both domestically and from import markets.
The company, however, faces challenges like any manufacturer and is continually looking for a new edge.
“We’re always looking to reduce our cost and improve our quality and service to give our customers a reason to buy from us,” Downey said.
The company also has maintained an excellent relationship with its workforce, which is represented by both the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers and the industrial division of the Communication Workers of America.
And Bekaert has been a leader in recycling.
The company has its own water recycling operation that has reduced its water intake from the city of Rome significantly over the past decade.
Downey said the company also recycles the cardboard boxes it ships its product in — asking customers to return them.
“We’ve done some recycling with a local vendor, so that instead of trash going to the landfill it’s being recycled,” he said. “We’re trying to be as environmentally good citizens as we can.”