A Team Member Perspective: A 34 Year Journey from the Kinston Explosion to the H.O. West Foundation
I retired from West in 2017. My West experience over my 34 years of being a team member left me with many fond memories and relationships that I still have today. West’s motto of integrity, strong work ethic and philanthropy aligned well for what I was looking for in a company when I joined in 1983.
Since retirement, I have been fortunate to be a member of the H.O. West Foundation. Over the years, the foundation has done much to give employees access to advanced education, as well as financial support in response to natural disasters around the globe. H.O. West set the tone early on for the company to be a valued “Corporate Citizen” in all of West’s locations around the globe. He wanted to give back and have a positive impact on the world. It’s fulfilling to be able to carry this spirit forward still today… 100-years later.
Sadly, on January 29th 2003 we had our own tragedy at West. Six team members lost their lives and many more were injured in a dust explosion that occurred at West’s Kinston, North Carolina manufacturing site. Senior management at the time quickly on day one adopted the guiding principle that “people would come first” in the recovery effort. At that time, I was the Vice President of Manufacturing, Americas. The memory of hearing the unthinkable news on my way home from a customer visit is still with me today. When I arrived at the scene that evening the plant management team was accounting for all of the team members who were in the facility at the time of explosion earlier that day. It was a challenging time as you might imagine for everyone involved--including the wider local community. Post the explosion, the plant could no longer produce product, but West’s senior management was determined that no one at the Kinston site would lose their job as a result of explosion. A decision was quickly made and broadly communicated that West would build a new manufacturing plant in Kinston. You can imagine what a relief it was to hear for those individuals and families directly impacted by the tragedy, as well as the Kinston community at large.
Keeping in mind that our customers still needed to receive the products that the Kinston plant produced, a plan was put in place to provide those products from West’s global manufacturing capacity. The majority of the products made in Kinston were relocated to West’s manufacturing sites in Kearney, Nebraska and St. Petersburg, Florida. A large amount of manufacturing equipment had to be transferred to both Kearney and St. Petersburg.
Our team members are knowledgeable skilled workers. Not just anyone can walk into a plant and run our processes. Numerous Kinston team members volunteered to temporarily relocate to Kearney and St. Petersburg for over a year.They were welcomed to Kearney and St. Petersburg with open arms. It was a huge undertaking. Many people who travelled had never been outside of the Kinston, North Carolina area before. Thanks to their dedication and commitment, we never let any customers down.
Scaling-up Kearney and St Petersburg was a gargantuan effort. A team of dedicated West professionals met daily, for hours across several weeks, to figure out what needed to be done. There was no playbook for this magnitude of a business interruption.
We had to house the travelers. Hotels opened their doors. Many friendships were made, with people who would never otherwise have met each other.
The One West team was never stronger. We didn’t just look after our own people, we also showed up for the whole community. We worked with experts who could provide emotional and psychological support and advice. West provided financial assistance to all Kinston employees. West was there to support everyone as they had already been through enough.
West met its commitment to rebuild the Kinston plant. Today, it’s state of the art. When we reopened the site, it was a day of mixed feelings for many team members.
In the subsequent years, we’ve been approached by many organizations wanting to know how we had been so resilient during the crisis and managed our way through it. West’s response was viewed by the many as a best practice crisis response. It’s a good feeling knowing we did everything as well as we could.
As a place to work West was ripe with opportunities. You could carve out a path of increasing responsibility was of interest to you. It was to me, and I enjoyed my career very much. Many of the people I worked with became life-long friends. I loved their can-do attitude, hard-working and supportive nature. H.O. West summed it up perfectly with his famous saying “Keep everlastingly at it.”
For more on our 100th Anniversary check out our webpage here.