Vo-tech training helped lure Siemens-Westinghouse into Carter County

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Tucked away in Watauga Industrial Park is a major company that provides one of the largest payrolls in Carter County. Siemens-Westinghouse, which concentrates its business on gas turbines for electricity, came to the county six years ago looking for 50 or 60 people with mechanical experience.
   Mike Verbonitz, head of Siemens-Westinghouse, said company representatives visited Northeast Tech near the airport and Tennessee Technology Center in Stoney Creek looking for millwrights and were impressed by both schools.
   "We looked in LaGrange, Ga., Gallatin, Tenn., and here," Verbonitz said.
   "We were close to going to LaGrange, Ga.," but Haynes Elliott, director of the Economic Development Commission, "kept calling us to come back and look at this again and again."
   Verbonitz said the building the company located in wasn't originally shown to them. "We were hours away from signing an agreement in LaGrange. Haynes called us back and we came back and looked at this place and we said, 'This is perfect.'
   "This whole community was very, very helpful when we came here. Haynes really worked hard to get us to come back. Also, Phil Isaacs at the electric company got involved and helped convince us to move here."
   Verbonitz said his company also considered locating in Knoxville, but all of the buildings there were too big to suit their needs. Also, he said, company officials felt that the vocational technical training received by students in Carter County was better than what they had seen in Knoxville.
   Representatives came to Carter County and set up in a conference room at the Chamber of Commerce to screen applicants. Advertisements were placed in the Star and surrounding newspapers. "We brought six interviewers here [from their headquarters in Orlando, Fla.] and we interviewed probably 100 to 150 people between October and the middle of January. We hired about 55, I think," Verbonitz said.
   "We've hired people from Virginia, from North Carolina and from Carter County. I think we only have about six or seven from Carter County right now," he said. Those technicians hired six years ago have stayed with the company, and most are now supervisors. "They travel and they're all making very, very good money."
   But it's a high-turnover job, according to Verbonitz. "They work almost 12 hours a day, seven days a week." Workers travel internationally and receive bonuses for that travel.
   "We were Westinghouse when we came here and we used to do a lot of international travel. These guys went to Asia, Columbia, Peru and Mexico. They still go to South America a fair amount, but the Asian thing has kind of dropped off pretty heavily. This summer, they're looking for some of our guys to go to Europe," he said.
   Verbonitz said the company previously looked at expanding after signing a $30 billion contract to warehouse parts for another company over the course of 35 to 40 years. "They were looking for a state that did not have a high inventory tax, and Tennessee had that," he said.
   One requirement was that the location chosen would have easy access for trucks. Verbonitz said his company considered renting the Workforce Development Complex where it is now located, but Cendant was located there at the time "and I think they had a concern about the trailers coming in and about converting this into that type of facility," he said.
   They looked at the Frank Schaffer building, but that was way too big, he said. In the interim, "the company has already gotten a place to store the stuff and they are warehousing it in another state," Verbonitz said.
   Due to the economic climate, Siemens-Westinghouse is not now hiring. "In fact, we're kind of going the opposite way, as most companies are. There are not a lot of companies expanding. We've been very lucky here in that we have not had to cut back," he said.
   Besides a downturn in the economy, "the Enron thing really hurt us also. They were a big customer of ours and they left us with a bunch of turbines that are in storage," Verbonitz said.
   The departure of United Airlines and reduction of flights in and out of Tri-Cities Regional Airport after Sept. 11 also hurt the company.
   "I travel every week almost. Our headquarters is in Orlando, Fla., and we also have a big shop in Houston. I used to be able to get to Houston in about five hours. Now it takes me about eight," he said. "I normally have a three-hour layover in Atlanta. And they cut out some of the connecting flights. That has really kind of hurt us, but I don't think it's just this airport, I think it's almost every airport across the country."
   Verbonitz said recruitment efforts among city and county leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, Elizabethton Electric, as well as officials at the state level were all instrumental in bringing his company to Carter County. "I would not have a problem recommending people to come here," he said.