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DTR stayed focused through height of recession

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Steve Unterbrink of DTR.
Photo by RPN photo by Chris Sweeney Steve Unterbrink of DTR.

BLUFFTON, Ohio—DTR Industries Inc. stared down the automotive recession and didn't blink.

That's not to say it was an easy process.

Prior to 2008, sales for the DTR Group—consisting of Bluffton and three other North American manufacturing plants—had decreased just once compared to the previous year, reaching a high of $553.3 million in 2007. Then the recession hit and for back-to-back years sales dropped, hitting $406 million in 2009.

“We hadn't ever experienced that,” said Steve Unterbrink, vice president of manufacturing. “And the majority of the people starting here in the late "80s and early "90s were very young. It was a very difficult adjustment for us to see that recession or that downturn because we've never seen it in our lifetime.

“Our sales just kept going up, and up, and up. I never thought there would be an end to that,” he added.

The reality was harsh, the automotive industry was in big trouble, and the Bluffton plant needed a plan. Part of that plan involved reducing its employment by 177. Kathy Ervin, vice president of human resources, said the firm utilized a voluntary layoff program with generous severance packages. A number of employees close to retirement took advantage of it.

What helped Bluffton avoid an involuntary layoff was the government's Trade and Globalization Adjustment Assistance program, which provided educational benefits to recently laid-off employees. This inspired some of Bluffton's younger associates to take a voluntary severance package and return to school.

When the dust cleared, 188 employees volunteered for the severance program. Ervin said the firm's work force appreciated how management handled the recession.

“Our morale compared to other places was exceptional,” Ervin said. “They hadn't watched any of their co-workers be sent home involuntarily or be out of a job involuntarily. We got a lot of compliments from associates for handling it the most generous way that we could without really any adverse financial impact to anyone.”

Even after the staff reduction, Bluffton still carried excess employees. Bill Yokas, senior vice president of manufacturing, said the firm was determined not to trim its work force any more than it needed to. Salary reductions were taken, and the firm eliminated bonuses. Management eliminated the outside cleaning service to give employees more work, but it also did little things such as making sure lights were turned off and as much paper as possible was recycled.

And when the economy rebounded, DTR was ready. Unterbrink said initially returning to the mode of high volume and high production was a scramble at times, but because it had maintained most of its systems through the recession it adapted quickly. The bigger issue was that other companies did not have DTR's forward vision during the recession, which led to some supply issues.

“We planned our way through the bad times and also planned a recovery,” Yokas said. “Not a lot of our suppliers did that, they were more whipsawed by the downturn than we were and maybe cut too deeply. It took longer to ramp up out of the downturn. “

Tracy Kehres, vice president of quality, said supplier closings caused a series of supply issues. She said the company managed to sustain constant supply, but often had to find a new vendor.

“Our customers are now more satisfied knowing that we were able to get through that time without any adverse effect to them and will probably do so again in the future,” Yokas said.

DTR Group's sales in 2012 missed its 2007 high by $1 million. Yokas is confident the automotive industry is back and has even identified some changes. In market surveys he's participated in, he's noticed the American companies closing the gap on the Japanese in terms of relations to their supplier bases.

“Everyone is still cautious from a capital investment standpoint,” Yokas said. “Companies are trying to find out exactly if they're out of this or not. Consumer confidence seems to be improving, and I think the market is stable.”