Sumitomo investment reinforces a key workforce | Business Local

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Sumitomo investment reinforces a key workforce

If you ever wondered why manufacturing jobs matter so much, take a look at what’s happening at Sumitomo Rubber USA’s tire-making plant in the Town of Tonawanda.

“Our average employee on the union side of it, just in wages alone, is around $65,000, and our benefit package is second to none,” said Thomas O’Shei, president of United Steelworkers Local 135L. Add in the value of those benefits, he said, and total compensation is equivalent to about $100,000 per job.

That is a powerful economic punch, especially when you consider that the plant has about 1,400 employees, including about 1,000 hourly workers, represented by the Steelworkers union.

That is also why it is so important that Sumitomo is investing $129 million in the Sheridan Drive complex. Those upgrades, which are getting underway, will help safeguard those jobs. The company is adding about 50 jobs, too.

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It’s an important moment for one of the region’s largest manufacturers, which has been making tires, under different owners, for over a century.

Sumitomo is making much-needed upgrades to the plant’s manufacturing technology, such as installing automated tire building machines. Rather than replace workers, the machines will help workers produce more tires in the same amount of time as with the old equipment, said Timothy Sprunger, vice president of operations and plant manager.

O’Shei said the Tonawanda plant was lacking for investment before Sumitomo reclaimed ownership of the facility from Goodyear a few years ago. Back then, there were questions about whether Goodyear would even keep the plant open.

Thomas O'Sheic

Thomas O’Shei, president of the local USW 135L.

Derek Gee / Buffalo News

But Sumitomo reclaimed full ownership of the tire plant in 2015 and invested $87 million in the operations. Last year, Steelworkers members approved a contract that runs through the end of 2025.

“That’s part of the reason this ($129 million) investment is here,” said O’Shei, who has worked at the plant since 1990.

The Sumitomo plant was hiring throughout 2021 to fill vacancies and keep up with opening as workers left through attrition. In February of this year, the plant finally reached the point where it had a wait list for new hires.

O’Shei said the plant’s workforce has reached a good balance between veteran workers and younger newcomers.

“I always tell our new hires in orientation: ‘You come to work and you do the work, because we don’t have anybody out on that floor that’s lazy,'” O’Shei said. “Otherwise, they don’t work here anymore.”

The experienced workers have a role to play in teaching their younger co-workers, he said.

“Sometimes it’s not fun to train somebody, it’s just easier to do your job,” O’Shei said. “But I remind the guys when we came in, the older guys trained us. They took pride in it and that’s what we have to do for the younger guys here. We have to impart our knowledge upon them. That’s what we’re supposed to do as good union people.”

Ziad Assaad, the plant’s engineering manager, said the tire builders at the plant are artists.

“I really believe that,” he said.

Sumitomo Rubber USA

New tires pass on a conveyor belt to the next part of the production process at the Sumitomo Rubber USA plant in Tonawanda.

Derek Gee / Buffalo News

The investment at Sumitomo is similar to projects happening at two other big manufacturers in the region: General Motors’ components plant in Lockport, and Moog Inc., the Elma-based motion control equipment maker. GM is pouring $154 million into the Lockport site, while Moog is investing $25 million in its local operations. Both projects will add new jobs, while also reinforcing the existing workforce.

Sumitomo’s Tonawanda plant stands out in a few ways. It has manufactured tires since 1920. It is Sumitomo’s only US production plant, churning out Falken-brand tires. And it is the only US plant that makes motorcycle tires, producing them under the Dunlop brand.

O’Shei mentioned telling a younger worker how he was glad the plant was back under Sumitomo’s ownership.

“He goes, ‘I am, too. I’m going to retire from here,'” O’Shei said. Guys would not have believed something like that six, seven years ago.

Want to know more? Three stories to catch you up:

• Sumitomo begins $129 million upgrade to tire plant in Tonawanda

• Moog Inc. to add 500 jobs to boost manufacturing operations

• GM gives $154 million vote of confidence to Lockport plant

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