Cat rebounds from tornado damage

Paul Gordon

Less than six months ago, Mother Nature dealt a harsh blow to Caterpillar Inc.'s hose coupling factory in Oxford, Miss.

What few may realize, company officials will acknowledge now, is that the tornado that ripped through the plant on Feb. 5 nearly brought the entire corporation to a standstill.

But the work of everybody involved - from hourly workers in Oxford to corporate leaders in Peoria - not only kept the operations going during the recovery but also enabled the plant to return to full production well ahead of schedule, company officials said.

The Oxford plant, built 10 years ago, was rededicated during a ceremony Saturday.

"We learned an awful lot about ourselves and our factories because of this crisis, but the most important thing we learned was that when faced with extraordinary challenges, our people can do extraordinary things," said Greg Folley, general manager of the specialty products business at Caterpillar.

"You really can't plan for something like what happened that day. We had to improvise most of it. But we had a lot of people here, in Peoria and throughout the entire corporation, willing to do whatever it took to keep that plant going.

"If we didn't, this company could have shut down and been on its back for a while."

How could one plant with about 300 employees have that much effect on a Fortune 50 company with plants throughout the world and more than 100,000 employees?

The Oxford plant produces hose couplings used on every piece of equipment Caterpillar manufactures. In most cases, it is the sole source of those couplings, without which the machines don't run.

With demand for Caterpillar products as strong as it is, the company could ill afford any delays at any of its factories, which are operating full tilt.

The tornado struck in the early evening, when about 100 employees were in the plant. They'd received enough warning to make it to in-plant shelters, so only a couple had minor injuries from the storm.

But much machinery was wiped out, and while the two most critical machines were not destroyed, they were unable to be operated until the area of the plant was better secured. For example, large air conditioning units - heavy enough to destroy anything they might have fallen upon - were hanging above one of the machines by only thin strips of metal.

The building contractor who built the factory 10 years ago met company officials the next day and said it would take at least six months and likely longer to get the factory back in operation, Folley said.

"We knew we had maybe two months worth of inventory (of couplings), and much of that was on the water, being shipped to factories abroad. We knew we had to be back in operation within two weeks or we'd be in trouble," he said. "We had to find a way, and we did."

A couple of days later, said Caterpillar spokesman Jim Dugan, the company decided it had better prepare customers for potential delays.

"We decided to put out a news release saying there might be supply disruptions. Ultimately, we were able to avoid that," he said.

The company did it by getting less-damaged parts of the plant up and running within 13 days and moving some operations to leased facilities down the road. A coupling plant in Michigan was pressed into doing more, and some couplings were shipped more than 6,000 miles to a foreign company for finishing at great cost to Caterpillar.

But not one customer had delivery delayed because of the Oxford tornado. "We got it done," Folley said.

"We are memorializing everything we did in a book - from the factory floor to the human resources division to other companies who helped us - so we can use the lessons and refer to the book if something like this ever happens again," he said.

The rebuilt factory is stronger, as well, Folley said. Changes include relocating the air conditioning units and using something other than rock as ballast on the roof because, he said, the rocks became like bullets flying through the factory when the tornado hit.

The shelters credited with savings the lives of the employees have been made even stronger, Folley said.

Paul Gordon can be reached at (309) 686-3288 or