Keeping jobs alive in New Orleans

Try to name the biggest employers in the New Orleans area, and chances are you’ll come up with a handful that are among the best-known businesses or institutions in town. Medical centers and universities will probably come to mind, for instance, along with big shipbuilders and maybe casinos. A name that’s much less likely to rise to the surface is Textron.

It is kind of surprising, actually, that the name Textron Marine & Land Systems isn’t better known around New Orleans, particularly given that the company is well recognized in far parts of the globe. In fact, more than 1,000 people work in Textron’s manufacturing plant on Chef Menteur Highway in eastern New Orleans. Their mission: to help protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of members of the U.S. military who are serving in some of the most violent hotspots in the world.

An operating unit under the broad umbrella of defense giant Textron Inc., Textron Marine & Land Systems has been a fixture in the New Orleans area for several decades. It is a bit ironic that the same city that gave rise to the Higgins boat – the beach landing craft that had a significant impact on the outcome of World War II – has also produced a vessel that plays a crucial role in much modern warfare.

For some 25 years, Textron has been building the ubiquitous LCAC (which stands for Landing Craft Air-Cushioned) in its New Orleans plant. The hovercraft-like vessel is capable of lifting heavy cargo straight up off the ground or water, and moving across land or water with ease. Over the years the vessel has given U.S. military ground forces access to countless shores that would have been impossible to reach using more conventional transports.

Plenty of military personnel who’ve never seen an LCAC, however, still are well acquainted with Textron Marine & Land Systems. That is because the company also produces the motorized four-wheel Armored Security Vehicles that U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots today cannot do without. Time and again, the ASVs roll ahead of and behind military convoys that pass through some of the world’s most dangerous territory. All too often, the 28,000-pound steel fortresses on wheels are the only shields troops can rely upon in the face of the deadly improvised explosive devices that characterize terrorist warfare.

Textron Marine & Land Systems General Manager Tom Walmsley says local employees take heart in the fact that all of the equipment they produce is deployed in the interest of saving lives. “They’re very proud of our products,” he says.

That may be one reason why, as Walmsley says, employee turnover in the local plant is low. Another reason, no doubt, has to do with job security.

During a period when businesses across the nation have responded to recession with layoffs and wage reductions, Textron Marine & Land Systems has been quietly expanding. In the past five years, the company has more than doubled its local employment and enlarged its physical footprint by 100 percent, adding an assembly plant and warehouse in Slidell, and relocating administrative staff to larger office space nearby. What triggered the growth, of course, was war in Iraq.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off a rapid escalation of military manufacturing at home. In Textron’s case, Walmsley says: “We had the right product at the right time.”

As the Army’s demand for ASVs skyrocketed, Textron Marine & Land Systems scurried to ramp up production.

Their new mission was to push their output from one vehicle every three weeks to 48 per month. To make the challenge more interesting, in August 2005, a new enemy threatened the company’s flank.

As Hurricane Katrina headed toward Louisiana, Walmsley was probably more concerned about the Army generals who were breathing down his back than he was about the storm. “They all had their eyes on us,” he says. But his priorities had to shift as Katrina came ashore. The storm inflicted some $50 million worth of damage to the company’s operations.

Walmsley, who had only recently come to Textron from a 25-year career at The Boeing Company, pushed the pedal to the floor. Repairs to existing facilities had to be completed at the same time as management scouted for expansion space. Textron’s hiring went into warp speed, with managers signing on every engineer, mechanic and welder within a wide radius. In a remarkably short time, the company was back in business and shipping ASVs by the dozens to Iraq. “In 55 months, we didn’t miss a deadline,” Walmsley says.

To date, Textron Marine & Landing Systems has delivered some 2,400 ASVs to the Army. Walmsley believes the company has a good shot at a new contract that will push the total past 3,000. In anticipation of continuing demand, the company has invested millions of dollars in improving its military transport vehicles. A new-generation ASV has taken shape in the New Orleans yard. It is a redesigned, larger vehicle that rides higher off the ground and puts still more layers of steel between its precious cargo and the outside world.

Meanwhile, the company is working on a more highly advanced version of its flagship LCAC. Walmsley points out that the amphibious vessel has often departed from its military deployments to assist in civilian relief operations, most recently to earthquake victims in Haiti.
When the vessel isn’t carrying supplies to victims of natural disasters, he says, it’s more than likely moving such cargo as a 75-ton battle tank across the water on a cushion of air and then gliding onto a beach to deliver it to waiting troops.

Walmsley says Textron is bidding on a new LCAC contract that could extend its backlog of work by 20 years or more – keeping Textron’s name in the ranks of New Orleans’ largest employers for a long time to come.

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