While the factory’s first steering gear may sit in an unassuming place in the conference room, two employees, Jerry Garrett and Phil Dickens, have been working on the floor for 48 and 50 years, respectively, moving up from equally unassuming positions to symbols of the factory’s perseverance.
Dickens recalled he was the 384th employee hired by TRW in Lebanon when the factory opened its doors in 1961. He clearly remembered the number on his name badge and the date of his hiring, Oct. 16, 1961, just one month after that first gear rolled off the line.
“There was an ad in the paper,” Dickens said as he recalled his search for a stable job at age 17, just out of high school. He noticed the ad for the manufacturer, but also noticed he was too young. “I had to wait until I was 18 before I could apply,” he said.
Back then, he was a blueprint boy, but now he is the Skilled Trades Tool and Die Maker and noted the manufacturer was a big surprise to many residents in Lebanon. Dickens said back then many people in the area worked in agriculture and hadn’t really seen a big factory.
“People used to come in and they’d be gone by lunch,” Dickens laughed, referring to the surprise of the labor. He and Garrett joked that many of the local farm boys weren’t used to doing “real work.”
Garrett began his career with TRW at age 19, as an office boy, a courier and runner for the factory’s management. He said at that age, it was a great job to drive a company car and go to Nashville during the week.
“Nobody goes to work at a place thinking they’re going to be there for 50 years, but it just works out that way,” he said.
Garrett worked his way up from being an office courier to starting a drafting apprenticeship at TRW and is now the factory’s Tool Design Coordinator.
TRW owns 70 percent of the market share, according to Plant Manager Mike Bolen, and the Lebanon plant produces power-assisted steering gears for 18-wheelers, buses, fire trucks, dump trucks, military vehicles and more.
“Fifty years is quite an accomplishment, especially for manufacturing,” Bolen said.
All of those years of success, Bolen pointed out, are built on the hard work and quality of the employees who have been at the plant throughout its history. Dickens and Garrett said while the plant has changed in many ways, the quality of employees has never changed.
“This has been a good place to work, it’s been a blast,” Garrett said.
Of course, back then they pointed out that everything was operated manually and “everything was lifted by hand.” Machines had to be loaded manually and constantly monitored.
Now, the factory is home to several robotic units that perform specific duties without requiring much supervision. The first robotic “employee” of the factory arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Garrett and Dickens said.
As technology has advanced, so has the factory. While the employees cannot be replaced, Garrett said you can get a machine running and walk away for lunch or a short break and everything continues to work.
“The precision here is amazing,” Bolen pointed out, referring to some machines and processes that can cut the steel components of the gear systems down to two-ten-thousandths of an inch.
During the 1980s, before automation began to change the industry, Dickens recalled the plant employed nearly three times as many workers as it does today.
“At one time, we were running about 1,300 people,” Dickens said, pointing out that when automation began to play a large role in the factory, many workers retired around that time and the company didn’t have to replace the workers.
In the 1990s, Garrett and Dickens remembered working 10-hour shifts and operating the plant for seven days a week as demand was high and business was booming. However, that success has not always been present.
“This has always been a cyclical business,” Dickens noted. He explained that there are times when demand for new gear systems is low. Bolen said a gear system built by TRW can last for almost 1 million miles in an 18-wheeler that’s traveling America’s interstates.
Like all businesses, TRW suffered from the economic downturn, posting its lowest “gear count” in May 2009 at only 525 units. While the plant had to make cuts and layoffs and move employees around, in the past two years, they’ve moved forward and have bounced back through what may be yet another cycle.
“Over the past two years we’ve seen a steady increase, all of our layoffs are back to work,” Bolen said.
Bringing employees back is not their only accomplishment as they’ve also managed to create new opportunities at the Lebanon plant. Bolen said they moved a product line from Mexico to the plant, creating an additional 22 jobs. They also created 31 news jobs by handling exports to China.
The plant currently employs 450 people, and they’ve made 30 new hires in the past couple of months. Dickens and Garrett said that throughout its history, the plant has grown into an economic indicator of how the local economy is going.
When TRW bounces back, they said you can expect other businesses to follow suit right behind it. At one point, they believed the plant was an outlier, something that you couldn’t take into account when looking at local prosperity. But as time moved on, they said when the parking lot of TRW is full, things are going good in Lebanon.
“Since the downturn, we’ve been working smarter and doing what we can with what we have,” said Ann Bridges-Wright, executive assistant/purchasing buyer.
Although economic circumstances and success took a plunge in the past few years, everyone pointed out that TRW’s role in the community never suffered from a downturn or layoffs. Bridges-Wright said the plant and the people who work there has always been a key feature in Lebanon’s landscape.
They sponsor Byars-Dowdy Elementary School, give money and time to civic organizations, local veterans, and participate in fund raisers and charity events. Employees at TRW participate in Habitat for Humanity, the March of Dimes, Sherry’s Run, Rotary Club and more.
The money and effort doesn’t come from a corporate fund or contribution, but rather the pockets and hearts of TRW employees. “It’s a very caring workforce,” Bridges-Wright said.
She’s worked at TRW for 13 years and said she quickly noticed that when people asked where she worked, and she said TRW, they instantly had a connection. Being around for 50 years, TRW has seen multiple generations of local families pass through its doors.
“I think it’s important that TRW has been an integral part of the community,” she said.
The plant’s employees have had 10 members graduate from Leadership Wilson; they support the Nivens Home for veterans and give them gifts and company during Christmas. When a fellow employee is going through a hard time, Bridges-Wright said their co-workers are always quick to provide assistance.
On Saturday, the current employees and retirees will get together at the plant for their first company gathering in many years. They’ll eat, play volleyball and bingo, and have games for kids and more.
While the first gear system sits on the bottom shelf in a conference room, you can find a new, polished steering gear like those produced every day in the plant, upstairs in the orientation room for new hires.
There’s something to be said for half a century of business and success in Lebanon, and while it’s important for new hires to study the cross-section of the steering gear and see what they’ll be making, they should get a chance to touch and feel the old, small system that represents all that history.
Where you’ve been is just as important, if not more important than where you are or where you’re going. You can’t get to that shiny, polished gear system without the old, unassuming hunk of steel on the bottom shelf. This Saturday, if at least for one day, TRW should move that very first steering gear out into the limelight.
Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at email@example.com.