After Energizer Pulls Plug On Plant, Workers And Town Adjust

The Energizer plant in Maryville, Mo., ceased production on Nov. 7 after 42 years of operation. | Photo by Phil Joens
The Energizer plant in Maryville ceased production on Nov. 14 after 42 years of operation. | Photo by Philip Joens

For his entire adult life, Allen David had been employed by Energizer in Maryville.

In May 1979, David was 19 years old. Just after getting married and having his first child, David got a job at the Energizer plant running a machine that molds the body of the battery.

In July 2012, something was different.

David walked onto the floor at the Energizer factory for the first time in a week. What he saw didn’t surprise him, but he knew his life would change because of it.

Three large machines that had been used for 40 years to make the outer jackets of 9-volt batteries had been removed over the plant’s annual July maintenance break. Energizer had outsourced the work to another company because it was cheaper for the company to buy the jackets than to make them.

“If they’re going to take that equipment out, they must be closing the doors,” David thought.

“There’s no way they can make a 9-volt without those metal jackets.”

He was right. On Nov. 8, 2012, St. Louis-based Energizer Holdings announced it planned to close three factories and lay off 1,500 workers as part of a restructuring plan that would reduce its workforce by more than 10 percent and save the company more than $200 million.

In the coming months, 290 people would lose their jobs in Maryville, and the city’s school system would deal with the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in critical funding.

For David and residents of Maryville, the change would mean the end of an era. Energizer’s plant in Maryville started operations in October 1971. As recently as 2005, Energizer employed 800 people in Maryville and had not laid off any workers in 30 years, according to a 2012 story in the St. Joseph News-Press.

The Maryville plant shut its doors for good on Nov. 14, 2013. David was laid off on Oct. 8. In 34 years at Energizer, he spent 31 years working maintenance and the other three as a molder operator, earning between $400 and $600 per week. The living was far from luxurious, but his salary coupled with what his wives (he divorced and remarried during his time at the plant) earned has been enough to support seven children.

On his last day, David signed paperwork for two hours before he left the plant for the final time. During his exit interview, the reality began to set in that he no longer worked at Energizer.

“They told me that if I ever go back,” David said, “I was just a visitor.”

At its peak, the The Energizer plant in Maryville | Photo by Philip Joens
Energizer's Maryville plant employed 800 people as recently as 2005. | Photo by Philip Joens

Weathering the storm

Jim Fall sounded puzzled.  

In an October interview, Maryville’s mayor said he was surprised by the plant closing because the average tenure of employees there was 23 years. Fall also said the Maryville facility had the lowest production cost of any in the company. Missouri Business Alert tried to confirm the numbers with Energizer, but the company does not disclose those figures.

Just 20 miles from the Iowa border, Maryville has an economy that’s a mix of agriculture, education and industry.

The town’s largest employer is Northwest Missouri State University, which has about 7,000 students and employs 800 people.

Jim Fall | Photo courtesy of Fall
Jim Fall | Photo courtesy of Fall

According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, manufacturing accounts for 14 percent of the workforce in Nodaway County, where Maryville is located. The area has a solid base of manufacturing jobs with companies like Kawaski Motors Manufacturing Corp., Nucor Steel and Laclede Chain Manufacturing Co.

Nodaway County is still attracting new businesses. ChloroFill LLC will open a plant that makes decorative hardboard, with hiring and production expected to begin during the first quarter of 2014.

According to the Nodaway County Economic Development department, Maryville has a workforce of 11,574. Energizer’s staff represented 2.5 percent of that workforce. Unemployment in Nodaway County rose 1.7 percent, to 6.9 percent, between May and August, the last month for which data is available. Unemployment figures by county aren’t available for September through November, when Energizer laid off the majority of its Maryville employees.

Fall believes the city will weather the storm caused by the plant closing. He’s concerned about unemployment in the area, but not any more than at any other time.

The mayor downplays the impact on the unemployment rate because he says workers at Energizer come from six to eight counties around the area.

Energizer offered positions at other plants to some of its Maryville employees. It also is working with local and state officials to assist affected workers as they look for jobs and retraining.

A decline in demand

The Maryville factory made C, AA, AAAA and 9-volt batteries. The increased use of rechargeable devices forced Energizer to streamline production at its factories to meet declining demand, a company spokeswoman said.

Since the announcement last November, the value Energizer Holdings stock has climbed. On Nov. 7, 2012, the day before the announcement, the company’s stock closed at $71.04. On Nov. 9, the price jumped 7.62 percent from the previous day’s close, to $76.22. On Monday, Energizer stock closed at $108.64, an increase of almost 53 percent since last November’s announcement.

In a press release issued last Nov. 8, Energizer CEO Ward Klein said, “These actions represent significant and necessary changes to our overall cost structure and organization. We believe that these changes enhance Energizer’s ability to continue to compete effectively in the personal care and household products categories.”

In closing the plants, Energizer aimed to eliminate some of its fixed costs in order to maintain current profit margins. According to that same 2012 press release, a quarter of the savings will be reinvested in the company and used to create new technology.

Maryville, Mo., is a town of 11,972 located in Northwest Missouri about 20 minutes from the Iowa border. The Energizer plant in Maryville closed Thursday after operating since October of 1971. | Photo by Philip Joens
The Maryville area is home to manufacturing facilities for Kawaski Motors Manufacturing Corp., Nucor Steel and Laclede Chain Manufacturing Co. | Photo by Philip Joens

The next paycheck

Now 53, with a wife and two young children living at home, David is unemployed for the first time in 34 years. He works weekends as a bus driver for a local charter bus company, making $16 an hour. He’s looking for a full-time job that pays $15 per hour.

David graduated from Northwest Missouri State with a bachelor’s degree in business. Because of that, he has a leg up on other laid-off employees who don’t have college degrees.

His wife, Melisha, works at Federal-Mogul Corp. Her salary, plus the small amount of money David makes from bus driving and his unemployment benefits, will cover all short-term expenses.

David built a house before the plant closing was announced, but he’s not worried about making his payments for that. The $550 he collects from renting out his old house covers his mortgage on the new one.

Before the announcement of the closing, David was going to build a duplex. He had the plans, the bid and the prices for it. Once Energizer announced the restructuring plan, David put the duplex on hold.

In an interview, he sounded like a man whose future was taken from him and he’s not quite sure what to do.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” he said at first, talking about the closing of the plant and his time at the company.

But he holds a grudge against Energizer management. He accuses management of stealing ideas from workers, lying and being hypocrites. He thinks that the company is outsourcing jobs to China in the name of saving the almighty dollar.

In reality, Energizer is streamlining production in many of its plants abroad, including factories in China, Canada and Malaysia.

In David’s eyes, these moves are profit-oriented, made to help the wealthy get richer. Meanwhile, he is now collecting unemployment and worried about where he’ll get his next paycheck.

“Will I buy from Energizer for a battery again? Probably never,” he said.

Filling the budget

Maryville’s school system may suffer more than any other entity as a result of the closure.

The shuttering of the Energizer plant will shoot a $267,000 hole in the budget of the Maryville R-II School District for the 2014-2015 school year, according to Maryville R-II Superintendent Larry Linthacum.

This year, the district has a surplus of $133,000. Of the $17.9 million budget for this year, a total of $512,000 comes from real estate taxes on the factory, Linthacum said.

Because the building will be vacant next year, Maryville R-II will not receive the $390,000 Energizer pays in personal property taxes. Energizer will continue pay $122,000 in real estate taxes on the land until it sells the property.

Maryville R-II superintendant Larry Linthacum | Photo courtesy of Larry Linthacum
Larry Linthacum | Photo courtesy of Linthacum

To fill the gap in funding, Linthacum is getting creative.

The district will nickel and dime its way to about $210,000 in savings. By now, Linthacum knows exactly how much each one of these measures will save, and he rattles them off with ease.

Seventy percent of the budget goes to staff and personnel costs, so the district will not fill any position that opens up.

This year, the district installed solar panels at some of its schools. That will save Maryville R-II $16,000 per year. Keeping the schools cooler in the winter and hotter during the summer will save the district $60,000. Installing water-saving urinals and reducing overall water use by 10 percent will save the district another $4,400.

Diesel fuel costs Maryville’s schools $80,000 per year. Next year, they’ll hedge fuel costs by buying diesel in February, when it’s typically cheapest.

Linthacum’s dream would be to get a wind turbine for the district. That would to provide electricity for the schools and cut their electric bill by thousands of dollars each year, he said. But for that to happen, the district needs to get a grant to finance the building of the turbine.

“We’re just trying to be proactive,” Linthacum said. “Hopefully, something will come in and replace Energizer. But we have to assume that there’s not going to be anything there and to make reductions that have the least amount of impact on student learning.”

New skills, new jobs

Maryville’s Northwest Technical School will retrain people who want to make a career change, or feel that they need to learn new skills before they reenter the workforce.

Jeremy Ingraham, the school’s vocational director, said that after working 20 to 30 years in the same environment, most of Energizer’s workers are looking for similar jobs.

However, many of the workers are lacking basic computer skills. Northwest Technical School offers evening adult education classes that teach everything from using an iPad to navigating Microsoft Office.

Rick Swalley, former Energizer employee | Photo courtesy of Rick Swalley
Rick Swalley | Photo courtesy of Swalley

“Their skills that they are needing are mainly computer skills,” Ingraham said. “To be able to actually get on and to run an iPad and understand the different things within Microsoft Office, and Excel, those are things that they need.

“We have people in their fifties, and they literally don’t use computers because within their daily work for the last 25 to 30 years, they really haven’t had to use them.”

After decades at the same company, some employees also lack networking skills required in today’s business world. The Maryville Career Center helps laid-off employees write résumés, gather information about Missouri’s labor market and determine new career paths.

Rick Swalley is 57 years old. After 35 years at Energizer, he was laid off Oct. 28. Swalley may take classes to learn plumbing skills, but he has no plans to go to school again. He’s not alone; because many workers were with Energizer for so long, there is a group of former employees who feel that they are too young to retire and too old to be retrained.

“Life goes on”

Work in a factory can be loud, noisy and hectic. It can get old quickly. Still, workers tend to think their jobs will be there for them.

According to Swalley, workers in a factory form a sort of family. Co-workers generally respect each other, form friendships and see their kids grow up together.

Now, the former employees of Maryville’s Energizer plant find themselves without those jobs, removed from the daily presence of that factory family and wondering what’s next.

Swalley is considering starting his own handyman business. He has a rough estimate of what it would cost to start a business building sheds, putting siding on houses and working on plumbing. He views the plant closing as an opportunity.

“Life goes on,” Swalley said. “When a door closes, another opens and you just don’t know what life is going to dish out to you.”

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