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Irwin owners make it official: DeWitt plant will close
The DeWitt Vise-Grip plant. (Lee Enterprises)

The Vise-Grip locking tool has a reputation: It rarely fails to keep its grip on nuts and bolts and parts of things that need to stay together.

But the village of DeWitt, where the locally invented tool’s factory became a livelihood and a source of pride and identity over the past century, has now lost its hold on the Vise-Grip.

Owners of the Irwin Industrial Tools plant in the Saline County town where Vise-Grip tools have been made for 87 years told employees Wednesday the plant will close at the end of October.

That will end the jobs of 330 people. 

Off to China will go the labor and the famous name that defined DeWitt from the early 20th century to the present, when the village home page on the Web still calls the town the home of Vise-Grip.

Production of the Vise-Grip brand will be transferred to Shenzhen, China,  where Irwin already makes other tools, said spokesman David Doolittle.

“This is a difficult day for all of us in DeWitt,” said Doolittle.

Employees were given the rest of the week off from production work, with pay, but are expected to return Thursday with spouses and partners for meetings with Irwin staff to talk about their transition, retirement, health benefits and other issues.

Doolittle said the company will  pay the employees enough in transition to make up the difference between their current pay and state unemployment insurance benefits. The duration of those benefits will depend on each employee’s tenure, he said.   

The average pay of a production worker at the plant is $13.50 an hour. Entry level is $11.50;  maximum is $22 an hour, Doolittle said.

In addition, the company will offer transition services,  like help with earned retirement benefits for those who don’t go back to work, and networking with other companies to find job openings.

Doolittle said the company is working with state and federal authorities to offer transitions, including educational programs.

“Our intention is to do everything we can to help employees land on their feet as quickly as possible,” he said.

 Some managers may be given opportunities to work at other plants, if they are willing, according to Doolittle.

The rationale behind the outsourcing to China was simple, Doolittle said: the plant no longer is competitive in the world market.

“It was a very difficult decision, and it doesn’t reflect in any way on the quality of work or the effort performed by the people here in DeWitt,” Doolittle said. “The fact is, we live in a global marketplace. Our consumers demand lower prices. We’ve had to take this action to remain competitive globally.”

Vise-Grips are made only in DeWitt.  The production of another line of tools, Unibit, will be moved to a plant in Gorham, Maine, Doolittle said.

The magnitude of savings the company will achieve is “significant,” Doolittle said. 

“There will be savings in the first year, then will increase over the long term,” he said. “The fact is we’ve seen a decrease in sales of  Vise-Grip over the years. We’re doing this to keep the brand competitive.”

Prices on Vise-Grip tools range from $10 to $40.

Doolittle would not specify the difference in pay Irwin manufacturing workers earn and what workers will earn in China.

“You can’t isolate any one aspect of efficiency this action is going to bring to the company,” Doolittle said. “It’s been no secret we’ve had efficiency challenges here.”

He said the company made an effort to keep the plant operating in DeWitt.

“All the great work of the employees has made it a harder decision,” Doolittle said. “Simple economics made it necessary.  We just had no choice.”

He acknowledged the closing has been the subject of much discussion for years.

“The fact is, there have been rumors, and we have wanted to take our time to make this kind of decision,” he said. “We know the impact it will have on our employees and on the town.”

Newell Rubbermaid, which had been a minority owner of American Tool since 1985, bought what the rest of the company in 2002.  The Irwin name came from a line of tools American Tool bought in 1993.

Irwin is working with state and local officials to find a solution for the plant in DeWitt — 365,000 square feet of manufacturing space at 108 S. Pear St., valued by Saline County at $5.6 million.

“If you talk to them,  they’d like to see another manufacturer locate here,” Doolittle said. “We are certainly working with local officials to make sure this plant has a future.”

Reach Richard Piersol at 473-7241 or at dpiersol@journalstar.com.

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