Continental makes major investment in plant

BENZONIA – A $1 million renovation that includes a 17,000-foot addition is nearing completion at Continental Industries, formerly Mitchell Manufacturing in Benzonia. It will mean increased manufacturing, research/development, office space and greater diversity in the company.

“We want perspective customers to have a preamble of what to expect inside when they come into our building–very high quality–so we want the look of quality on the outside, as well,” GM Ken York explained. “The increased space will allow us a tremendous ability to diversify, which means we can bring on additional work. It means opening up the marine and boat industry and trucking industry. By becoming affiliates with a company that builds the frames, we could then supply the complete seat. It opens up a whole new market for us.”

The plant is a large supplier of interior trim for General Motors. From seat covers for a Delta-Mazda auto line; to plastic car door bolsters, which are padded and wrapped in vinyl, cloth or leather; to new heated pizza bags for Pizza Hut home delivery, the plant is a whir of movement and machinery.

Before it became Continental Industries, Mitchell Corp. had been serving the automotive industry from the Benzonia location since the 1960s, specializing in leather seat trim. Over the years, the company and its 140 employees have earned a reputation that Continental is eager to expand on.

“The workers here are the best,” said York. “They have experience and talent and the quality products that are produced here are well known in the industry.”

That’s why when Continental took over the manufacturing plant in November of ’98, not a day of production was missed during the transition.

The company is headquartered in Fraser, Mich., and has plants in Chesterfield, Mich. and Alpharetta, Ga. Combined with the new Benzie plant, they employ over 800 workers. Because they deal with automotive contracts, the work fluctuates with the industry.

“One of the hardest things in this industry is having to lay people off and, unfortunately, it’s a way of life in the automotive business,” York said. “With the additional space, we can expand our business, and continue to grow. It opens up opportunities in other industries. If the work is there, we will add more employees rather than lay off the ones we have. That is our goal for the future. With the kinds of talents we have here in our employees, I cannot go out and hire people to replace them.”

Over the past two years, major upgrades in equipment have been made, including a $100,000 Eastman cutter, a computerized process that cuts material that used to be done by hand with scissors. It has increased accuracy and speed, which translates into more business for the plant.

“The upgrading of the computerized cutting press allows us to feed the material from both sides, which means we can utilize two crews,” York explained.

The company recently began developing a two-piece door bolster in two colors with embossing for GM.

“With our engineering departments, and given the technology, we can offer change, we can give the product some flair, which is very well received in the auto industry,” he said.

Other mechanical technology is being brought in to improve production and make the jobs less labor-intensive.

Continental Industries has made a huge investment in the Benzonia manufacturing plant, one that the company hopes will double its business within two years.

With improved labor rates, which now average $8.50 per hour and include health benefits and a 401(k) plan as of March 1, that’s good news for local workers.

Other good news: the plant recently received a QS-900 rating, which is the industry standard for continuous improvement. BIZNEWS