The workers in Apple Grove, West Virginia, have good cause – causes, actually — to celebrate.
The outlook was far grimmer just two years earlier.
Although the corporate banners changed periodically, the plant had remained a steady cornerstone in the economic life of the Apple Grove community. Goodyear Tire & Rubber began operations there in 1959. Shell Chemical Co. bought the plant in December 1992.
The M&G Chemicals group purchased it in 2000 and declared bankruptcy in October 2017. On Oct. 24, the plant closed and all of the approximately 130 employees were laid off.
The company instructed managers to notify the employees, pay them through midnight and lock down the facility. But the workers of Apple Grove were not willing to give up on their futures.
“A small core group of employees volunteered to stay at the plant to maintain health, safety and environmental compliance. They ensured the plant’s equipment was kept in good mechanical condition,” said Richard Maack, manufacturing site manager, APG Polytech.
The former employees cooled the reactors, stored the chemicals properly and safely shut down the plant. That winter, the core group performed preventive maintenance work on the equipment to ensure it remained in good operating condition.
“There was no promise of pay for those who stayed at the plant. There was no guarantee the plant ever would be resold or reopened,” Maack said. “They did this work on faith, on the belief that the facility could be sold to a new company and that all employees would be able to return to work.”
The former employees, local and state organizations all threw their support into the effort.
“We hosted several companies interested in purchasing the facility,” Maack said, “often working with the USW (United States Steelworkers union), the Mason County Development Agency, the Mason County Commission, the West Virginia Development Office and the State Tax Office.”
On March 1, 2018, the Taiwan-based Far Eastern New Century Corporation (FENC) closed the purchase of the former M&G plant. The workers and company restored the manufacturing plant to full operation in July, less than four months later.
The plant, now called APG Polytech, returned to producing polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Properties such as strength, flexibility, stability and recyclability make the plastic resin a popular product for bottles and food packaging.
FENC is a leader in PET recycling in Asia. The Apple Grove facility marks the first plastic production site in the United States for FENC.
The West Virginia plant offers several attractive advantages for its new owner. Among them, Maack cited:
“We worked with the company and the USW to rehire the employees laid off the previous year,” he said. “We had an employee return rate of 97%.”
Having so many hands already experienced in the work and familiar with the facility was a key factor in the quick restart.
APG Polytech is busy working for a renewed future. FENC’s expertise in recycling is expected to play a role as the company looks for additional opportunities in the industry.
“What happened at APG Polytech is indicative of the dedication and loyalty you will find in the West Virginia workforce,” Maack said. “The people in this area are committed to not only their own success, but also to the success of the companies for which we work and the communities in which we live.”