Batesville Casket Co. makes magazine’s Best Plants list|[03/16/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 16, 2008

Inside a large dry storage warehouse among towering stacks of cottonwood, mahogany, pecan, oak and maple planks, government representatives from the city, county and state joined Batesville Casket Co. administrators on Feb. 29 in thanking its 239 employees for bringing national attention to the Vicksburg plant.

Batesville Casket Co.’s lumber processing plant in Vicksburg has been named a Top 10 Facility in Industry Week magazine’s 2007 Best Plants competition. It is only the second plant in Mississippi to receive such designation from Industry Week since the magazine began giving out the award 18 years ago.

“Winning this award and receiving this recognition is a big, big, big deal for our company,” said Doug Kunkel, Vice President of Global Supply Chain Management for Batesville, who traveled to Vicksburg from the company’s home office in Indiana to be on hand for the award presentation. “We really believe in the future of this plant. Everyone at the home office is really excited about the award, and proud of this plant’s employees.”

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The Vicksburg plant, located south of town on U.S. 61, has been in operation since 1975. The plant is responsible for preparing and processing raw lumber to be used in constructing caskets and cremation products. The finished lumber processed at the Vicksburg plant is shipped to other Batesville facilities in the United States and Mexico to be assembled into funeral service products.

Industry Week magazine evaluated 150 nominated facilities across the country in selecting its top 10 for 2007. Evaluations include an extensive application to be completed by the facility, as well as an on-site visit from magazine representatives. The Vicksburg plant received a nomination in 2006, but did not place in the top 10.

Kunkel said production and safety numbers posted by the Vicksburg plant in 2006 and 2007 undoubtedly helped it secure a top 10 award this time around. Overall safety at the plant was increased by 46 percent in ’06, and an additional 32 percent the following year. Quality of product was increased by 15 percent in the two years combined. Some of the most impressive numbers, said Kunkel, came in the amount of reduced waste at the plant over the past two years. Yield, the term for timber thrown away due to imperfections, was down 40 percent in ’06, and an additional 36 percent in ’07.

“Those are just remarkable numbers. They really speak for themselves, and you are the owners of those numbers,” Kunkel told the Vicksburg plant employees at the award presentation.

Keith Pittman, engineer manager, said he expects those numbers to only further improve in years to come, thanks in large part to new technology recently incorporated on the production floor. In June 2007, the plant invested nearly $4 million to install three high-tech scanners that measure defects in pre-processed lumber. Pieces of raw lumber are sent through the scanners, which are capable of taking 6,000 digital photos per second from four different angles. The scanners detect defects in pre-processed lumber, and then recommend where to cut the piece of lumber in order to reduce waste.

“Everyone has worked very hard to adapt to the changes that have taken place here, and we’re starting to see the positive results,” Pittman said. “It’s been a hard process in many ways, lots of these people have worked 80 to 100 hours per week at times. Receiving this award has shown us it’s been worthwhile. There is a real sense of accomplishment here, especially today with everyone coming out and honoring us.”

The Vicksburg plant was also named 2006 Plant of the Year by Batesville Casket Co.’s parent company, G.C. Hillenbrand, for overall performance.

Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens was on hand to dedicate Feb. 29 “Batesville Casket Company Day” in Vicksburg. Leyens thanked plant employees for bringing positive national attention to the city, and noted the top 10 honor is the kind of award that can entice more industrial companies to do business in the area, spurring future economic development.

“Your hard work has put the people of Vicksburg on the map,” Leyens said to the employees. “This is going to mean something to this community for the long term.”

Vicksburg Alderman Michael Mayfield was also on hand for the presentation, as were Warren County Board of Supervisors William Banks, Bill Lauderdale and President Richard George. Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg also attended. Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, presented Plant Manager Richard King with a proclamation signed by Gov. Haley Barbour acknowledging the plant’s accomplishments.