Hitting Home: Bennington business expanding with military contract
09/07/09 7:50AM By Susan Keese  Download MP3
(Host) In Bennington County, which has the third highest unemployment rate in Vermont, a company called Plasan North America is expanding.
The company specializes in composite materials that are significantly lighter and tougher than steel. Thanks in part to a pair of billion dollar defense contracts in which it has a major role, Plasan has been hiring workers.
VPR's Susan Keese has more.
(Keese) On a hot day this summer, workers, dignitaries and top Plasan officials gathered under a canopy outside the company's Bennington plant.
(Leahy) "I'd like to applaud all the people out here. They're the ones that are doing the work and making it work."
(Keese) Senator Patrick Leahy pushed Congress to buy a lighter and more agile armored vehicle designed for Afghanistan and its rugged terrain.
Plasan North America was chosen to produce the armor for those vehicles in partnership with a Wisconsin company.
At the ceremony with Leahy sits a version of the "mine resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle," or MATV, painted in tan and green camouflage.
It's made of a highly proprietary composite designed to resist blasts from improvised bombs and artillery fire.
(Leahy) "How many people can go to work each day and say, ‘I'm doing something to save my fellow Americans who are trying to protect me?' There aren't that many."
(Keese) Plasan has helped create a sense of optimism in Bennington in a tough economic climate. The company is an offshoot of an Israeli armor maker, Plasan, Sassa.
Plasan North America also made the armor for an armored vehicle designed for Iraq.
Eyal Banai is the company's president. He says that during that project it became clear that Plasan needed a manufacturing site in the U.S.
In 2006, the company bought the automotive division of Vermont Composites of Bennington. Plasan continued to make auto parts, but also began manufacturing armor. An economic development package from the state helped cement the deal.
Banai says the decision raised some eyebrows.
(Banai) "People say, ‘Why? It will make significantly more sense to open such a facility in the Midwest or in the South.' But the team of people that we developed over there are great. And we are totally committed now to Vermont and to Bennington specifically.
(Keese) Bennington is an industrial town that's never given up on manufacturing. A decade ago the town was full of empty plants. Some people argued that industry was gone forever.
Peter Odierna of the Bennington County Industrial Corporation was among those who disagreed.
(Odierna) "What we were seeing was really the height of the outsourcing boom and even though we took some body blows at that time, we understood that what we had left in the community was worth building on."
(Keese) Plasan North America grew so quickly at its first Bennington site that in 2007 it moved its armor division into another empty building in town.
The two plants now employ about 270 workers, and the armor division plans to hire at least 80 more.
(Keese) In the automotive plant workers shape and finish hoods and other assemblies for specialty cars, like the Corvette.
The pieces are made of carbon fiber-- an ultra-light, ultra strong mix of woven carbon fibers and adhesive resins.
(Lonsdale) "In automotive especially, carbon fiber is being looked at as one of the major items for improving our dependency on foreign oil."
(Keese) Gary Lonsdale heads the company's research and development division. They're working on new processes to produce more cars more quickly.
He says that 2014 is going to be a big year. That's when new federal fuel efficiency standards kick in.
(Lonsdale) "All the companies are going to have to take about 500 pounds off their vehicles between now and then, and the only way to do that is to use high-strength, light-weight material."
(Keese)Making carbon fiber parts involves both high-tech robotics and careful handwork. Kelly Walsh has worked here three years. She hand fits a segment of a new Corvette over a mold. The part will bake in a giant autoclave.
Walsh worked previously in the fast-food industry. She considers this a step up.
(Walsh) "Financially without a doubt. It's the easiest job I ever had, they pay me so much money."
(Keese) Plasan executives say Bennington could become the center of a sort of carbon fiber valley.
That would be just fine with Peter Odierna of the Bennington industrial group. He says the town's once-vacant plants are now all occupied. But most have downsized during the recession and more jobs would be welcome.
For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.