River Bend to add 25 jobs in expansion

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 138 views 

And now for something completely different: Good economic news about a Fort Smith manufacturing company.

Fort Smith-based River Bend Industries hopes to add at least 25 jobs to its plastics injection molding operation thanks to financial support from the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

The jobs are tied to production of a “Kosmo cooler,” according to River Bend President and CEO Ron Embree.

Believing Whirlpool Corp. would likely close its Fort Smith refrigerator manufacturing plant (now set to close June 29), Embree began several years ago an effort to diversify his product line so that losing a large portion of the Whirlpool business wouldn’t bankrupt the company.

A consumer product came to the rescue, Embree explained in a previous The City Wire story.

The Kosmo is a simple design that places a cooler on the top of an adjustable tripod leg configuration that raises the cooler above the floor/ground for more convenient use. The tripod legs fold into the sides of the cooler. It’s one of those products that may create a “Why didn’t I think of that?” reaction from anyone seeing it for the first time.

Embree first learned of the cooler variant about four years ago from Northwest Arkansas entrepreneurs Tim Mika and Stephen Bowman. Bowman, now a principal at Garfield Elementary School in Garfield, Ark., developed the idea when teaching cross country track.

‘DISASTER’ FUNDS
The River Bend plant in Fort Smith employed about 110 a little more than 3 years ago, with employment now around 60, Embree said.

“Over the next two years we will get up to 85. This cooler, and the help they (chamber, AEDC) gave us, will allow us to put 25 jobs back on top of that 60,” Embree said Wednesday (May 9).

The chamber made a loan to River Bend — the loan amount was not disclosed — and the AEDC committed to a $100,000 grant to the city of Fort Smith through the Community Development Block Grant program.

“The source of the grant is CDBG Disaster. Disaster funds can be used for economic development and we can make grants to entitled cities such as Fort Smith,” noted an AEDC statement. “Business retention is a primary focus of AEDC and Riverbend is a good example of a company losing a major customer and is working hard to re-tool its product and service to replace that business. Whenever possible we want to help companies remain viable, keep their business in Arkansas and continue to provide jobs for our citizens.”

The Fort Smith metro area needs more jobs.

The number of employed during March was an estimated 116,735, up from 115,892 during February but almost 5% below the 122,809 employed in the region during March 2011. Fort Smith’s manufacturing sector employed an estimated 18,500 in March, below the 18,800 in February, and below the 20,700 during March 2011. Employment in the sector is down more than 39.7% from more than a decade ago when January 2001 manufacturing employment in the metro area stood at 30,700.

CHINA RETURN, OPTIMISM
Tim Allen, chief operating officer with the Fort Smith chamber, said Embree has fought to not go the way of Fortis Plastics, Huntington Foam, Southern Steel & Wire and other Whirlpool vendors who have closed Fort Smith operations.

“He (Embree) didn’t just wait for that (Whirlpool closure). … He was already diversifying and trying to respond,” Allen said, adding that many other Whirlpool vendors in the Fort Smith area have diversified product lines and “don’t anticipate a huge hit to employment” after Whirlpool closes.

“We were just pleased to be able to participate and help grow and help keep a business here. That’s what we try to do every day,” Allen said.

Embree, who sells the cooler through a major U.S. retailer with plans to sell through other retailers, expects to produce as many as 300,000 units in 2013. Also, Embree sees the production as a victory on a larger scale.

“The other thing, and I hope you can use this, but this thing initiated in China for initial production, and we got it and are bringing it back here. And we’re pushing to bring even more of that (products made in China) back here,” Embree said, explaining that the rising cost of delivering products from China makes U.S. production more competitive.

Although he will lose about half of his Whirlpool business in June (River Bend also is a vendor for other Whirlpool plants), Embree has a positive outlook.

“I’m more optimistic today than I was 18 months ago. We’ve got this cooler and two decent size projects coming,” Embree said. “But we’re having to reinvent our capabilities out here to do that (stay in business).”