By: William Morris
January 5, 2018
Viracon, the largest manufacturer in Steele County, announced Friday it plans to close its plant in St. George, Utah.
The architectural glass fabricator’s St. George facility is the smallest of Viracon’s three U.S. plants, with fewer than 200 employees and about 200,000 square feet of production space.
According to the company’s press release, recent expansions and investments at the Owatonna and Statesboro, Ga., factories are enabling the company to close the Utah plant, reducing costs, without causing delays for customers.
“The decision to close this location is not at all a reflection on the team or their performance, which has been very strong,” Viracon President Kelly Schuller said in the statement. “It is a difficult but necessary step to maximize Viracon’s competitive position and realize the full potential benefits for the significant investments we have made.”
Director of Marketing and Product Management Annette Panning said Friday that the closure will likely mean little impact on operations in Owatonna, where the company employs about 1,500 people.
“The real impact was in the past 2 years in the expansion of this facility to accommodate the capacity,” she said.
The $25 million St. George plant was announced in 2006, to open in 2007, to take advantage of a Utah program promising $750,000 if the company created 250 new jobs within five years. Panning said at its peak, the plant employed about 350, well above that target. The company saw demand drop sharply during the recession, though, with hundreds of layoffs announced in 2009, and the Utah plant was later closed for almost two years, from 2013 to 2015, due to continued weak demand and to allow the company to upgrade equipment and processes there, officials said at the time.
Asked why the company had built the factory, then decided to close it after less than 10 years in operation, Panning said the Utah plant had been built to accommodate a time of rapid growth.
“In 2007 there was a peak, and we just couldn’t bring on capacity in existing facilities that quickly,” she said. “Now that we have those capacities [in Owatonna and Statesboro], because of the investments we’ve made, it created redundancies that aren’t necessary anymore.”
Viracon will work with Utah officials to assist displaced workers, and will discuss relocation opportunities on a case-by-case basis.
St. George, a city of about 80,000, has been growing explosively in recent years, with 20.4 percent job growth from 2012 to 2016, and unemployment was at 3.2 percent as of September. St. George Area Chamber of Commerce President Pam Palermo said any business closure is a “tragedy” but was confident Viracon employees will find other companies eager to hire.
“There are a lot of jobs available, so I don’t think anyone will be out of work,” she said. “For 2018, we will have exceptional growth. We’re sorry to see them close, it really takes its toll. We’re a small community, everyone is family, but we’ll still survive and we’ll still do great.”
Panning said the company will be repurposing some of the equipment from Utah at other facilities, and will put the property up for sale.
Despite the closure of the Utah factory, the company is hinting that further growth around the corner. In the press release, Schuller noted that the recent additions in Owatonna and Statesboro have added substantial capacity, “with the expectation of further improvements still to come.”
Panning said it’s premature to discuss what those improvements might be, but said the company is well-positioned to grow.
“Those further improvements won’t be overnight, it’ll be another multiyear effort, but there’s definitely a strategic vision to monitor what the market is calling for, and Viracon will do what is needed to remain at the forefront,” she said.
William Morris got his start in the newspaper trade as a recurring editorial intern in Wisconsin and has been writing about business, government and crime at the Owatonna People’s Press since 2015. He now splits his time working with the newspaper and as Associate Editor for Forge.