Winnebago ramps up RV production – adds jobs in Junction City

by Wendy on November 22, 2016

Many employees worked at the former Country Coach facility that Winnebago purchased last year

Winnebago Junction City plant by Brad Waring

by Ed Russo (The Register-Guard)

JUNCTION CITY — Mark Darcy had to find other work seven years ago after his employer, recreational vehicle manufacturer Country Coach, closed in the throes of the recession.

Darcy, 56, got other jobs, including a stint at a cabinet-making company in Eugene, but he found them unsatisfying.

“It wasn’t in my blood,” he said.

Nine months ago, Darcy returned to where he once worked — the former Country Coach plant in Junction City — which was acquired late last year by Iowa-based RV maker Winnebago.

“My blood was here,” he said. “I got the opportunity to work here, and I jumped on it.”

Darcy is one of 85 employees at the Winnebago plant in Junction City, about a third of them former Country Coach workers, according to company managers.

Of the employees, 53 are working in the manufacturing facility and 32 are in a service center north of the factory that provides repairs and service to Winnebago and Country Coach motor homes.

Winnebago intends to employ as many as 200 people in Junction City, company spokesman Sam Jefson said, although “the number of employees who work on site will depend on market conditions.”

So far, a handful of Grand Tour 45RL motor coaches that sell for $450,000 to $500,000 have been made at the Junction City plant, which is now ramping up production.

About a decade ago, Lane County was a nationwide center for luxury motor home production, with Country Coach, Monaco Coach and Marathon Coach all located here.

In 2005, transportation equipment manufacturing — an industry dominated by RV makers — was so robust that it employed 4,500 county residents, including 1,800 at Country Coach.

But slammed by the recession and downturn in RV sales, Country Coach and Monaco Coach in Coburg closed, laying off thousands of workers.

Today, with 260 employees between them, Marathon Coach in Coburg and Winnebago are the only manufacturers of motor homes in Lane County.

Yet the resumption of RV manu­facturing in Junction City, even with fewer jobs than before, is welcomed by business and civic leaders.

Winnebago won’t disclose how much it pays its workers, but observers say the firm’s wages match or exceed those that were paid by Country Coach, and that Winnebago has better health insurance and retirement benefits than Country Coach did.

“The community is real happy they are here providing living-wage jobs,” Junction City Mayor Mike Cahill said. “We also are happy they are still on track to have more than 200 people in their manufacturing plant and running the service center.”

Rick Kissock, executive director­ of the Tri-County Chamber of Commerce, based in Junction City, said grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses will benefit from the jobs at Winne­bago. Motor home owners who bring their RVs to the Winne­bago service center also will pump money into the local economy, he said.

“Having Winnebago out there is just a tremendous boon to the economy,” he said.

Winnebago announced its purchase of the Country Coach complex last December, two weeks after Broadcom, then known as Avago Technologies, said its purchase of the former Hynix computer chip plant in west Eugene could lead to the hiring of more than 200 well-paid employees.

But last week, Broadcom announced that it had abandoned its plans to restart the Eugene plant. The company said it was going to put the plant up for sale.

In contrast, “Winnebago has done what they said they were going to do,” Kissock said.

Country Coach was known for high-quality, expensive motor homes, according to Guaranty RV owner Shannon Nill.

The first Oregon-made Winne­bago, a Grand Tour 45RL, rolled out of the plant in July and was sent to Guaranty RV in Junction City, one of the nation’s largest RV dealers.

The 45-foot motor home is a mini-luxury home on wheels, featuring cherry or maple cabinets, porcelain tile floors, kitchens and bathrooms with quartz countertops, shower-equipped bathrooms and multiple televisions.

Nill said the first Junction City-produced Winnebago was taken to an RV resort in Newport and quickly sold for about $500,000 to a couple from Las Vegas.

“They said it looked like a Country Coach, which was a huge compliment,” he said.

A Financial Move

Winnebago bought the mostly shuttered plant and an adjacent property from RV executive Ron Lee and other members of the Lee family in two transactions for a combined $8.95 million.

Winnebago made the purchase so it could move production of its large diesel-powered­ motor homes from its headquarters in Forest City, Iowa, to Oregon.

The 45-foot diesel models are the largest motor homes Winnebago makes, and the Iowa facility is better suited to building smaller, gas-powered coaches, said John Millis, general manager of the Junction City plant.

Assembling big RVs in Oregon, in a plant designed for large motor coaches, frees space in Forest City so Winnebago can build more of its smaller models, he said.

Winnebago also wanted a West Coast service center, Millis said. Midwest weather can make it difficult for Winne­bago customers to get their RVs serviced in Forest City during the winter, but “here we can basically operate year-round,” he said.

Winnebago’s acquisition included nine buildings totaling 270,000 square feet spread over 41 acres. Fourteen of the acres are undeveloped and could be used for plant expansion.

When it bought the plant, Winnebago estimated the firm would spend another $6 million to $11 million to equip and upgrade the plant in the near future.

Since then, Winne­bago has installed overhead bridge cranes, a computer-controlled cutting machine, a new dust collection system, and machines for assembly of the motor homes, Millis said.

Winnebago is taking advantage of tax breaks and subsidies offered by the state and local governments eager to attract large employers.

The plant is in a state-authorized enterprise zone, where qualifying companies can get three to five years of property tax waivers on new investment in plants and equipment.

Harrisburg City Administrator Brian Latta, who oversees the enterprise zone that includes Junction City, said Winnebago’s initial application said the firm expected to invest $6 million in the plant this year. However, the firm can wait until next April before disclosing how much it invested, Latta said. That amount will help determine the size of the tax break for Winne­bago for the following tax year.

Even with a waiver, Winnebago will continue to pay property taxes on the value of the buildings and land before the investments. Winnebago is being billed $186,656 for the 2016-17 property tax year, Lane County Assessor Mike Cowles said.

Earlier this year, the Lane County Board of Commissioners approved a $100,000 grant to Winne­bago that the firm used to increase electrical service for welding purposes and to install copper and fiber optic cable in its buildings, said Sarah Means, the county’s community and economic development manager.

Winnebago also received a $77,000 training grant from Lane Workforce Partnership, a mainly federally funded nonprofit agency that works with local leaders on job creation. The money was used to help train 28 employees who still were working in the Country Coach service center so they could become Winne­bago employees after the purchase.

Many Lane County employers are having difficulty finding qualified employees in the current labor market, which has relatively few job seekers.

But plant manager Glen Barton said the pool of former Country Coach employees made it relatively easy to find workers.

Barton, a former Country Coach plant manager, was asked to return by another former Country Coach manager, ­Dave Diamond, who had­ joined Winnebago. When he got the recruiting call, Barton, 59, was working at an RV dealer in Albany.

“We are getting a lot of our employees from word-of-mouth and from former employees,” Barton said. “There is so much talent here.”

Sally Williams, 52, worked at Country Coach but left in 2009 after the company shut down. She worked at RV Glass Solutions in Coburg, but she said she was happy to return to a manufacturing job in Junction City, where she lives.

“It’s really nice to see something come back to Junction City,” Williams said.


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