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Wheelabrator celebrates 40 years

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By John Barnhart

    “This is our 40th anniversary family day,” Wheelabrator plant manager John Moore told a gathering of employees Friday.

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    “We poured our first heat in April, 1974,” he added.
    April, however, does not have the best weather for outdoor activities, so plant officials opted to have their family day in June.
    “We picked a day we thought would have pretty weather in the summer,” Moore said.
    The plant in Bedford makes cast steel abrasives that are used for blast cleaning. Moore said their major customers are in the automotive and aerospace industries. John Deere is also a major customer. The Wheelabrator process is an airless blast cleaning method that uses a rotating wheel to throw the steel shot or grit. The steel shot and grit can be reused multiple times.
    According to a Bedford Bulletin-Democrat article from Aug. 2, 1973, the Bedford plant was Wheelabrator’s first plant to be built outside of Indiana. The company wanted a plant to service its customers on the eastern seaboard and one of the factors that led the company to locate the plant here was local interest. The article notes that the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, then called the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce, played a major role in attracting the plant here. At the time, the site where the plant is located was a cornfield.
    Stella English, the plant’s office manager, is the plant’s oldest employee. Actually, she worked there before the plant even opened. She was hired in 1972 before the company even broke ground. She initially worked out of  a construction trailer and one of her first tasks was to buy a space heater so she wouldn’t freeze in the unheated trailer. Along with no heat, the trailer had no water or toilet. English brought in water to make coffee. A toilet break meant a trip to the old Auto-Dine, across U.S. 460. English’s job was to hand out applications for prospective employees.
    Wheelabrator was bought by a French company and became Wheelabrator Allevard. It’s now part of the Winoa Group, purchased by KKR, an investment group, in January.
    Greg Wood, the plant’s production manager, mentioned some of the changes that have come about in 40 years. He said that back in 1974, the average salary was $12,000 per year, the average rent for a house was $200, “and President Nixon said, ‘I am not a crook.’”
    He said that, since that time, there have been six recessions and eight presidents.
    Another change is with the plant’s output. It was originally designed to produce 15,000 tons of abrasives per year.
    “We are doing 44,000 tons per year out of the same plant,” Wood said.
    This has been accomplished with only minor upgrades in the equipment.
    Wood said the company currently has 42 employees and employee turnover is low. Once people get jobs there, they tend to stay.