Tall, mature pine trees stand in front of Caterpillar’s Clayton plant, measuring the past two and a half decades in feet instead of years.
Caterpillar, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in Johnston County on March 2, measures those years differently too: in the 175,000 machines that have come off the line since the plant opened.
“If we take a look at the work and put it on the low end, low-productivity operators, they could have excavated Johnston County and the seven surrounding counties four feet deep,” said Doug Petterson, Caterpillar’s general manager for building-construction products. “That is a huge amount of work. ... If you don’t like what’s going on in Washington, D.C., you could bury that 100 feet deep.”
The machines Caterpillar builds in Clayton, first backhoes and now small-wheeled loaders, mainly end up on construction sites, both residential and commercial. Petterson used a few more examples of how much work the 175,000 Clayton-produced machines could do: excavate all of Massachusetts or build Grandfather Mountain State Park eight times. But Petterson said what the machines do day to day is actually more impressive.
“While that’s an interesting statistic, what’s important is, think of all the streets, all the sewers, all the houses that this equipment has built that has made people’s lives better,” Petterson said.
Caterpillar opened in Clayton in 1991 and sold its first machine, a Cat IT28B, in 1992. The company buffed and shined a restored model and had it on display for an anniversary ceremony, next to the plant’s current small-wheeled flagship, the 938M.
Clayton plant manager Vic Baluis said the company produces six models of its small-wheeled loaders in the 435,000-square-foot plant, today employing slightly more than 400 people. He credits the Clayton employees with keeping the plant viable in Johnston County.
“None of the success this company and facility has or had would be possible without the great work from the employees we have currently and that we’ve had in the past,” Baluis said. “The Johnston County community has been a great partner in making us successful. Twenty-five years in the same location is rare when you look at the data for companies.”
Petterson rattled off a number of statistics about how rare it is for a 25-year-old plant to still be in business with the same company, in the same location, putting the figure at less than 25 percent nationally. About 18 months ago, Caterpillar went through a round of layoffs at several of its plants, including its headquarters in Peoria, Ill., and in North Carolina, where it closed its Franklin plant. But Clayton was spared, and today Caterpillar employs 2,000 workers in North Carolina.
Ken Hoefling, Caterpillar’s vice president for building-construction products, thinks the company’s presence in the Triangle isn’t fully known, that old-line manufacturing isn’t seen with the same kind of excitement as a tech company, though he believes heavy equipment requires its own form of sophistication.
“We need high-quality people,” Hoefling said. “Look at the technology that we’re putting on some of these machines. We need high-quality software engineers just like the Triangle does or SAS or anybody like that.”
While the public might not fully know the complexities of Caterpillar products, the company’s work is ubiquitous around the Triangle, where construction sites abound. Hoefling said the company is optimistic as the building market rebounds, and he said there’s much to like in President Donald Trump’s plan to put $1 trillion into the country’s infrastructure.
“When you look at an infrastructure investment like the president wants to do, that’s twofold for us,” Hoefling said. “One, it will put our machines to work, but more importantly, it’s an investment in our infrastructure as a country to allow us to be more competitive, which is what we need.”
Petterson said the company hopes to see a 50th anniversary in Clayton, but he suspects the way products are built today will quickly give way to something else. He told the workers assembled for the ceremony that robotics would play a larger role in the company’s future, but he also suggested the company would invest in its current workforce.
A few miles down the road from Caterpillar’s Clayton plant, construction is underway on Novo Nordisk and Grifols expansions, a combined $2 billion in investment that puts Caterpillar in a larger industrial community. To the east and west of Caterpillar, thousands of homes have popped up since the plant opened in 1991. Johnston County is night and day from what it was 25 years ago, but Baluis said that’s to Caterpillar’s advantage.
“As the surrounding community grows, surrounding business grows, it brings in a more diverse workforce for us to be able to draw from,” Baluis said. “And overall, the economy of the community is improved when you see that kind of growth. It has been a positive experience for us.”
On the day of Caterpillar’s anniversary in Clayton, federal agents searched the company’s Peoria headquarters, focusing on financial filings, according to media reports and a statement by the company. The company had no comment on how the investigation in Illinois might affect Clayton jobs or production.
Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson