For 40 years, Michelin has constructed tires at its Napier Field Road facility in Dothan, and five employees have been involved in the operations since Day One.
Michelin officially celebrated its 40th anniversary in Dothan in October, and Mark Leatherwood remembers when the plant didn’t have flooring installed.
“The first days were filled with the urgent need to just build a building, hire and train (workers), and install and commission machines for production to begin,” said Leatherwood, who works in dimensional equipment maintenance. “The floors were dirt inside, and machines were constantly delivered.”
So much has changed in the tire industry and in technology, but one quality kept the five employees — Jim Richardson, Rick Rawlett, Gary Williams, Stanley Peters, and Leatherwood — at Michelin. It provided a good, steady career.
“Michelin has provided a good living for my family and myself,” said Williams, an extruder operator. “Working for Michelin has been a very stable job.”
In addition to dirt floors, Michelin employed rudimentary processes — at least by today’s standards — to create tires in 1979.
“I’ve watched tires be transferred from one area to another by hook chains, where tires hang down from hooks, to (tires) being transferred by conveyor belts,” said Richardson, a mold mechanic. “I’ve watched the plant go from a horse and buggy to a jet airplane — from being partially automated to almost fully automated.”
The company implemented work schedules that differ from today’s operations because of the ways it manufactured tires back then.
“Rubber production couldn’t just be turned off and on. Stabilization of rubber was the priority for good, quality results,” Leatherwood said. “Operators worked an eight-hour shift seven days a week in those days. The operation of the machines was a lot more physical then.”
“Ergonomics has changed the way operators handle and lay products, which helps on the wear and tear of the body,” Richardson added.
As new manufacturing processes developed throughout the years, so did new trends. Michelin has even altered the materials included in tires over time, something Michelin’s Dothan employees encountered.
“The tires were made with a lot more steel inside. Now tires have polyester and steel inside,” Leatherwood said.
“Similar to the automotive industry, Michelin industrializes new materials for improved safety and performance, which ultimately results in new tire lines for our customers,” Rawlett, a quality obtention manager, added.
Throughout the years, tire sizes also changed, Rawlett said.
“Dothan built a couple of urban vehicle tires when the factory first opened, but most of our tires were 15- and 16-inch dimensions,” he said. “Now we build a handful of 16-inch, and most tires are 18- or 20-inch, and will most likely get larger in the future.”
In addition to stable careers that provided for themselves and their families, the five men offered a few other reasons for why they have remained at Michelin for 40 years.
Changes like those in the manufacturing process and trends kept Leatherwood interested in working for Michelin.
“The building of this institution hasn’t stopped,” he said. “The demand for products has driven progress, innovation. The challenges have kept my interest, the demand has set the pace, the years have passed so quickly.”
For Rawlett, a career in Michelin offered opportunities for advancement into some unique assignments. In recent years, Rawlett has helped the company in starting manufacturing operations in Brazil and China, but will soon return to the Dothan plant that launched his career.
“If I had to narrow the reasons of what has motivated me to work for Michelin for the last 40 years down to one, it would be the opportunities the company has given me throughout my career,” he said.
Deeply held desire
For others, though, the desire to remain at Michelin seemed innate.
“I have been blessed with good health, I have always appreciated my job, and I am just as hungry now as I was 40 years ago,” Peters said.
In an ever-changing business climate, though, many industries face obstacles that cause them to close or relocate plants. That has not been the case for Michelin and Dothan, and the five men attribute that to the quality of workers found in the Dothan area.
“We have some of the best-trained and most dedicated people, which is why other companies attempt to recruit our people,” Rawlett said. “The safety and the quality of our products is why we exist, and to be able to build Michelin in Dothan is a blessing for our team and the community.”