Follow-Up File: Manufacturer holds steady in recession

What they said then: The Tribune reported in November 2008 and February 2009 that Paso Robles manufacturer Zurn-Wilkins lost 30 employees in two rounds of layoffs.

One of San Luis Obispo County’s largest employers, Zurn-Wilkins makes valves and other water-system components used in plumbing, irrigation, waterworks and fire protection. Founded in 1906, it has been in Paso Robles since 1977.

Rexnord Industries, its Milwaukee-based parent company, cited a weakened economy and a downturn in construction nationwide for the local layoffs, said Richard Thompson, Rexnord’s director of marketing.

The 2008 cuts were the first at the local manufacturer since the early 1990s, according Karen Schwenke, vice president of corporate marketing.The Paso manufacturer had 147 workers in February.

What he says now: With 162 employees, Zurn-Wilkins employment and sales have “leveled off,” said Christopher Connors, general manager.

“They haven’t turned around, but they’re not getting any worse,” Connors said.

Sales in December were about the same as December 2008, he added, though he couldn’t share specific figures or percentages. That’s an improvement compared to year-over-year declines the manufacturer had seen.

To adjust for the drop in new construction, Zurn-Wilkins has been marketing to large companies such as McDonald’s, Target and AMC movie theaters. In maintaining their water systems, such companies may replace thousands of individual components.

Its marketing pitch emphasizes the durability of Zurn-Wilkins’ products, making them a better value in the long run.

“So far, it’s been a good strategy,” Connors said. “We’ve gotten a lot of attention.”

While exports are not a large percentage of overall sales, Zurn-Wilkins has won business from buyers in Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.

“We price things in U.S. dollars,” Connors said. Their local currency is typically much stronger than it was just a year or two ago. We’ve become a much more competitive alternative compared to Europe.”

The manufacturer also recently earned the International Organization for Standardization 9001 certification, a quality standard required to sell in Europe and other parts of the world.

The plant employs a mix of engineers, office and line workers.

But when sales do increase, Connors doesn’t expect jobs to grow as quickly. The company has been reviewing its systems to eliminate waste and costs, while improving efficiency.

“I don’t anticipate doing a lot of hiring this year,” he said. “We’re heavily into lean manufacturing. We’ve taken this year when things have been slow and used the time to improve our operations.

“That’s fairly typical,” Connors added. “I think you’re going to see a lot more companies come back a lot more productive.”

Name: Christopher Connors

Job: General manager

Company: Zurn-Wilkins

— Raven J. Railey