The Unilever USA plant in Covington should be the largest ice cream manufacturing plant in the world by 2016, following an $108.7 million expansion announced last week in Covington.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signs autographs for workers at Covington’s Unilever plant last week. Haslam was at the plant to announce an expansion that will bring the ice cream plant’s total workforce to 1,000 in the next four years.
But when the global company began making ice cream in Covington in 2011 at what used to be a SlimFast plant, it was not a promising beginning.
Larry Gibson, manufacturing director at the plant – which produces ice cream under the Klondike, Ben & Jerry’s and Popsicle brands, among others – had his doubts about the workforce, and he took them directly and publicly to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam at a business roundtable in Memphis that summer.
“He took a risk,” is how state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville described the encounter and Gibson’s “chilling words” at last week’s announcement of the expansion.
John Churchill of Southwest Tennessee Community College spoke up at the roundtable a year ago and said the college could design the kind of training program Unilever needed, as it had for two Memphis economic development wins – Electrolux and Blues City Brewing.
“What a difference a year makes,” Norris said. “As a result of that spontaneous conversation, hundreds of Tennesseans were trained by Southwest Tennessee and Unilever in a customized curriculum, the result of which made Larry and Unilever true believers.”
Gibson is embarrassed about the moment, although it illustrated a later finding the Greater Memphis Chamber would make in its “Made in Memphis” study of the area’s resurgent manufacturing sector. The study concluded, among other findings, that manufacturing companies were largely unaware of such training programs at colleges such as Southwest Tennessee.
It is what Gibson referred to Thursday, Sept. 19, as “Unilever University.” It includes a training program called “Scientific Management Technique,” which Gibson used in several other manufacturing plants he managed in other places.
“This is how people learn how machines work,” he said. “It helps them understand and troubleshoot and run the machines more efficiently. We’ve had a 40 percent increase in productivity particularly around those who have gone through the course.”
Meanwhile, Southwest Tennessee Community College officials announced Thursday they are getting more than $8.4 million in federal Labor Department grant funds for workforce training in advanced manufacturing, process control and logistics management. The grant is for training in Shelby and Fayette counties.
Jerol Hopkins, the head of the Covington Industrial Development Board, said the board is about to embark on its own job training program as it expects to see a ripple effect from Unilever’s presence and as the expansion unfolds through 2016.
“When you turn that as many times as it will turn while it’s in the county, you will see it magnifies itself,” he said. “It’s a snowball effect.”
Jon Strachan, vice president of supply chain refreshments for Unilever, North America, confirmed the effect.
“We expect our expansion here … will actually stimulate others – the people we work with, our other partners, our suppliers, our service providers – anybody who touches our supply chain,” he said.
Hopkins has been on the industrial board since it was started in 1970.
“We’ve had a couple of setbacks,” he said of recent layoffs elsewhere in Covington. “But overall, I guess we’ve got probably $800 million or $900 million invested in industrial type projects.”
Tipton County executive Jeff Huffman announced Unilever’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes programs have funded 60 college scholarships for high school graduates in the county this year. All of the PILOT payments from Unilever go to the fund.
The Unilever expansion, which is expected to create 428 full-time positions over four years, is the latest in a series of economic development plums across the state that Haslam has announced in recent weeks.
“When the third-largest consumer products company in the world that could build anywhere chooses West Tennessee and Tipton County to build, that’s a great day,” Haslam said.