KEOKUK -- Henniges Automotive, Iowa Inc. has weathered the biggest downturn in the automotive industry since the Great Depression. That¹s good news for Keokuk, the Tri-State Area and the 440 employees who are producing rubber and weather-stripping for the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.
During the first half of 2009, the situation wasn’t so good, plant manager Shawn McAfee acknowledges.
General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy and then the federal government bailed out the two ailing automakers. As a result, the Keokuk plant’s hourly workers were laid off for as long as three months, while salaried employees were off six to 13 weeks due to the drop in demand for weatherstripping for doors, trunks and hoods of several models of cars, SUVs, minivans and pickups.
Now, McAfee is cautiously optimistic about the rest of 2010.
“We make primary and secondary seals that seal noise and water out of the vehicle,” McAfee explained. “We make glass runs, which are what the glass rolls up and in between, and belt line seals at the bottom of the glass or inside and outside of the door.”
The plant also makes deck lid or lift gate seals and hood seals that dampen noise and vibration.
“We¹re the only plant in our company that makes obstacle detection seals for back lift gates,” he said.
The initial design work for the plant’s seals is done at corporate headquarters in Farmington Hills, Mich.
In the late 1990s, a mixing facility opened that serves all of the company’s plants in North America as well as the Keokuk op-eration.
“We already had the mixing talent here, and the state and city worked with us on grants to help keep it here,” McAfee said.
The plant produces about 80 million pounds of rubber a year out of oil, carbon black from Texas and Louisiana, polymers from Texas and Brazil, and calcium carbonate from Quincy, Ill. A lot of other smaller ingredients come from Ohio and several other places, according to McAfee.
The ingredients are mixed like bread dough to make the rubber that is used in the extrusion process for the various seals. The mixing and extrusion units work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The rest of the plant works from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to midnight five days a week.
Henniges Automotive, Iowa Inc., dates back to 1914 when the operation was known as the Standard Four Tire Company. Only tires for Model Ts were manufactured then. In 1931, the plant was idle for awhile when the company went bankrupt until a reorganization occurred and it was known as Rubber Industries. The plant then made different products, including rubber gloves and garden hose, and tried to make mechanical dense rubber.
In 1937, Dryden Rubber Co. bought Rubber Industries and chemically blown sponge rubber was manufactured. The first ex-pansion occurred in 1939, and the second was immediately after World War II in 1945. The plant made gas masks as well as sponge rubber parts for autos during World War II and the Korean War.
In 1949, Dryden Rubber Co. was purchased by Sheller Manufacturing Corp. The plant was known then as Dryden Rubber Di-vision and later as Dryden-Keokuk Division. In 1955, the plant started making urethane foam for the furniture industry as well as crash pads and arm rests in addition to the sponge parts. Expansions occurred in 1951, 1958, 1961, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1979 and 1986.
In 1964 the foam operation for furniture was moved to the new Iowa City Division. Sheller merged with Globe-Wernicke in 1966, and on Jan. 1, 1967, the plant became the Keokuk Division of the Sheller-Globe Corp. The product line then was comprised of urethane foam (safety crash pads for autos) and sponge rubber products (weatherstrips) for the auto industry.
Sheller-Globe changed from public to private status in 1985. The major investors included a group of Sheller-Globe executives, General Felt Inc. and Shearson Lehman Brothers. In 1988 the Sheller-Globe properties were purchased by United Technologies Automotive. The plant at this time started to make flocked products, along with dynamic weatherstrips.
Schlegel, a division of BTR, bought the rubber division only of the plant in 1990. The plant then became known as the Iowa Division of Schlegel Sealing Systems. The urethane foam product line was moved to another UTA location, leaving only the weatherstripping business in Keokuk.
In 1995, the name of the Keokuk plant was changed to BTR Sealing Systems North America, Iowa Operations. The product lines did not change and the plant still made weatherstrips for the auto industry. In 1999, the parent company, BTR, merged with Siebe to form Invensys. CVC Partners Limited purchased Automotive Sealing Systems in April 2000. The name was changed to Metzeler Automotive Profile Systems, and the plant continued to make weatherstrips for the auto industry.In September 2007, Wynnchurch Capital purchased the North America facilities, including the Keokuk operation. In December 2007, additional plants were bought from GDX Automotive and the new company name became Henniges Automotive. The original brick plant still exists and has been expanded over the years. The facility at 3200 Main St. now covers 650,000 square feet of space.