Kaiser Aluminum’s new Mead Works manager Jim Chapman is between extremes.
He’s running a plant which at one end has some of the oldest equipment in the industry and at the other end has a new $40 million carbon bake facility and soon will have another $10 million expansion.
Chapman’s trying to bring change to a workplace ingrained with decades-old methods of making aluminum.
And while he tends to the day-to-day operations of the plant, he’s also preparing to negotiate a major contract with the Steelworkers Union.
Once he does all that, he might be able to take an afternoon off for a precious game of golf.
But for now, he’s either on the road or at the Mead plant on East Hawthorne at least 12 hours a day.
“It’s always like that starting something new,” Chapman said.
The 48-year-old came to Mead in January to replace Tom Franklin who retired after a 34-year career with Kaiser.
“There’s a lot of things that aren’t perfect,” Franklin said about the plant shortly after he announced his retirement. “But it has actually been fun.”
In succeeding Franklin, Chapman faces some big tasks.
“Safety performance at Mead is probably our biggest challenge. That and becoming more competitive,” Franklin said. “Our facility has its disadvantages because of the nature of its age.”
The plant was built in 1942 to produce aluminum for the war. The ancient pot-line is where raw materials and electricity join to make aluminum.
Because of the age of the equipment and the methods of operation, safety has always been a concern.
Last October, James Vandoren died shortly after a Bobcat front-end loader he was repairing fell on him. The incident is under investigation by the state Department of Labor and Industries. Though Vandoren’s was the first death at the plant in years, there is a litany of other minor injuries, including falls, burns and heat exhaustion.
Chapman’s already making small improvements, such as installing handles on the pot line equipment to offer workers hand-holds as they descend.
“Obviously the key objective for this facility is safety improvement,” he said.
And as for efficiency, the Mead plant is near last in the industry.
By streamlining Mead’s production system and providing standardized training, the plant will cut costs and help Kaiser reach its national goal of $120 million in cost savings and revenue improvement.
This isn’t the first time Chapman has faced such a challenge. His last position with Kaiser, as plant manager at the company’s Newark, Ohio, aluminum extrusion plant, had similar safety and efficiency challenges. When he started there in 1994 plant closure was being considered.
“It was on the radar screen with missile-lock on it,” Chapman said. But under his leadership, the plant turned around. Last year it was one of the best performing plants in the company, he said.
At the Ohio plant, where he oversaw 300 workers, Chapman knew everyone. He’s still trying to scratch the surface with Mead’s 1,200 employees.
Making contact could help him better understand the issues when contract negotiations with the Steelworkers Union start this summer, Chapman said. “We’ll probably spend a month or two working on local issues.” He expects a quick resolution.
He’s already making efforts to smooth company relations with the union by meeting with every committeeman and steward and by personally handling issues that deal with management’s behavior.
Chapman and his wife Linda aren’t new to Spokane. At Kaiser’s Trentwood plant from 1990 to 1994, he worked as finishing superintendent and plant operations manager. But his history with the company is much longer.
“My father worked for Kaiser at Ravenswood, (W.Va). He was a United Steelworker,” Chapman said. “Even though I worked for Kaiser for 23 years, I’ve been around it for 40.” He took a job with Kaiser at Ravenswood after working briefly as an Ohio state trooper.
Though Chapman is new to the Mead plant, much of his office decor dates to the days the U.S. government owned the plant. The walls are covered with wood paneling. Bookshelves and filing cabinets still bear metal tags with government identification numbers.
To the left of his desk, under a typing table, Chapman keeps his sturdy steel-toed boots. When he’s ready to go into the plant, he pulls them on and reaches for his green hard hat which hangs by the door.
“Ultimately I’d like to spend half my time in the plant,” Chapman said. “But now that’s hard to do.”
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