Hiram Walker survives cuts, expands

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 559 views 

A stated focus of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce is to be proactive in helping existing business and industry expand.

Melissa Hanesworth, plant manager of the Hiram Walker facility in Fort Smith, put a face on that focus during her presentation at the First Friday Breakfast, which is managed by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and held at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Hiram Walker, a liquor bottling and packaging company that moved to Fort Smith in 1981, now has 154 hourly and 87 salaried employees. The company also operates with 40 to 100 temporary employees each day, depending on the work load, Hanesworth said.

But in 2005, the plant came critically close to shutting down when “major players” in the liquor industry began to consolidate. In the consolidation, Allied Domecq, a United Kingdom company that owned Hiram Walker, was bought by competitors Pernod Ricard and Fortune Brands. The two competitors divided up the assets of Allied Domecq, with Pernod Ricard now owning the Hiram Walker plant.

The consolidation created much unused capacity in the liquor bottling industry. The Fort Smith operation had to show it could operate more cost-effectively than a plant in Canada and Indiana.

“We found ourselves in the middle of a fight,” Hanesworth said.

She said company officials were “absolutely floored” with how the Fort Smith community and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission stepped up to keep Hiram Walker opening. Not only were they floored, but in the 2007-2008 period, the company expanded from one to three shifts.

The plant’s future was again uncertain in 2010 when the Wild Turkey bourbon brand was sold to another company. Hanesworth said the Hiram Walker plant was already operating at about 50% capacity, and the Wild Turkey brand represented about 15% of the capacity. Once again the fight was on to save the plant.

Executives at the Hiram Walker plant worked with state and local officials to help the company continue to “co-pack” the Wild Turkey brand in Fort Smith for the new brand owner.

With that fight won, another emerged, Hanesworth told the chamber crowd. Pernod Ricard officials decided to conduct another “footprint study” similar to that conducted tin 2005 as part of an effort to diminish excess capacity (underutilized facilities) in the system.

And again, with help from state and local officials, Hiram Walker survived the cut.

Surviving the cut has been tough in the global liquor bottling and packaging industry. Information provided by Hanesworth shows that almost 1,800 industry jobs around the world — including about 750 in the U.S. — have been lost in recent years.

Hanesworth said the plant is now focused on “going on the offensive” to prove its worth in the industry and within the company. She said since 2005, production in Fort Smith plant has risen from about 4 million cases to just under 7 million today.

She also said workforce training programs at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith were a “key tool” in helping the Hiram Walker plant remain competitive.