LOUISVILLE, Ky.—James Wirtz II officially takes over as president of Rep Corp. on Jan. 1, but he's got a pressing project to finish first: Getting the rubber injection molding machinery company moved into its new U.S. headquarters.
The North American subsidiary of Lyon, France-based Rep International was taking residence at its 15,000-sq.-ft. facility in Kodak, Tenn., during the first week of December. The facility sits on a 10-acre site so there is plenty of room for expansion, and the firm is hopeful a phase two for the project will come fairly quickly, Wirtz said.
The investment for the project wasn't disclosed. Wirtz and Tim Graham, the man he will succeed as Rep Corp. president, discussed the new headquarters during the recent ACS Rubber Division International Elastomer Conference in Louisville.
Rep is projected to employ about 20 people locally, including administrative staff, industrial engineers, sales and management.
Wirtz, currently Rep aftersales director, and Josh Beachum—who will succeed Wirtz in that role—were appointed as project leaders more than two years ago to search for a new location for the company's national headquarters, which had been in Bartlett, Ill.
But what Wirtz, Graham and the team decided was not to do an entire relocation, but to place the new headquarters in Tennessee and also maintain its presence in the Chicago suburb. The Bartlett site, Wirtz said, will be a smaller office, but still have capabilities for sales, engineering, rebuilds and research to support its customer base in that part of the U.S.
The Kodak site was chosen, he added, because the feasibility study showed that a lot of Rep's customer base—predominantly automotive rubber parts makers—were moving more to the south.
"We think we will be able to support our customers very well with the two locations geographically," Wirtz said. "In today's world you don't need a bank at every corner. We don't believe we need 15 locations for Rep, but with the talent we have in the company and working at home offices throughout the country, the two locations will support our customers very well."
A number of factors led Rep to choose the city located near Knoxville, Tenn. Besides the migration of its customer base, Wirtz said the area has a talented worker pool to draw on, noting that a number of colleges offer industrial engineering programs.
"We've met with the deans of those particular departments, and they're willing to help us with not only building a certain curriculum for us, but to help bring that new talent we need to fill some of the voids in the industry," he said.
The cost of living is relatively low because there is no state income tax for individuals, he said, plus the area where Rep is locating isn't isolated because of its location near the University of Tennessee.
"Knoxville allows us to have that metropolitan lifestyle if you want at a low cost of living," Wirtz said. "Plus, it doesn't take you too long to get into the countryside. It's not like Chicago where the suburbs sprawl for 60 miles."
In addition, there are a number of technical schools in the area and programs available for residents to receive higher education at no cost. "There's quite a bit of talent coming out of these programs and we want to be able to capture that," he said. "We want to make Rep a great place where we're able to get that type of team member who will stay with us their entire career so they can become an expert."
Wirtz said those who continually job-jump for a bit of extra money may get different types of experience, but never become an expert. And contrary to what many people think, he believes there are those in the younger generations who want to plant roots and become experts in their field by staying in an industry.
He cited a young man who Rep hired as an apprentice three years ago. He's done well, and proves to Wirtz there are those who want to learn and build a career with a company and an industry.
"They're hard to find, but one of the determining factors in Knoxville is we believe there are quite a few people there who want what we want, to be part of the Rep family," he said.
Rubber in his blood
Wirtz's family had a company called Wirtz Manufacturing that his grandfather started in 1932 that built rubber molds. His father was involved in the design of molds and rubber parts, so Wirtz grew up in that industry, in Port Huron, Mich.
Sometime in the early 2000s he said Wirtz Manufacturing, which is still family owned, exited the rubber mold making business, concentrating on other areas, particularly its patented technology for machinery to make lead acid batteries.
During his junior year in college, Wirtz himself started an engineering firm, an enterprise he continued for more than 18 years before selling the customer list and assets in 2014. The Wirtz Design Group designed manufacturing processes, helping firms build manufacturing facilities. It would design the manufacturing process, advise on what machinery to buy, assemble the process lines and facilitate start-up and staff training.
After selling, he joined Rep first as service director and then as aftersales director. From working at Wirtz Manufacturing, he had a long-standing relationship with Rep and Graham. Wirtz's father has been a friend and colleague of Graham's for years, and he told his son that Graham would make work fun.
"I listened to what he said, but was not sure exactly what he meant," the younger Wirtz said. "But I realized after five minutes, I knew he was right. It's not grueling, and I enjoy coming to work every day. We have great people and it's fun. I think I found what everybody wants to find: That company where you can really enjoy yourself every day and really enjoy the people you are around."
He said he has no intention of reinventing the wheel at Rep. "Tim's done a great job and he's grown the company very well, and he's very respected in the company and with the client base. Obviously I want to continue that growth under the same ideas that Tim has laid down from his tenure at Rep."
The transition has Graham becoming director of special projects for a period of time, and Wirtz said he will be his closest confidante.
Wirtz also will create an advisory board after the first of the year. Graham will be on it along with Beachum, Accounting Director Anna Seal and National Sales Director Derek Williams. Wirtz said this will help facilitate that group mentality.
"One of things I learned in the military (he served in the U.S. Navy after high school) is that if you put one mind in a room you can do some great things," Wirtz said. "But if you put 10 minds in the room, you can go to the moon. That's the team approach we have. We all get along very well. We respect each other, we have a lot of great people and we want to go to the moon."
His impression of Rep was that of a high-end machinery maker—the best in the business, he said—but one that had evolved over time to offer equipment to all the different price levels in the market.
"We can still have high quality and high technology, and also have machines that are more lean to fit into a particular financial box that a customer may need," Wirtz said. "Maybe they don't need all the bells and whistles, but they still want the quality of a Rep machine, and we can offer that. I think our product base and the range we have is much better suited for penetration of the market in the U.S."