Airstream, Jackson Center are a Perfect Match
Editor’s Note: The following is an in-depth profile by Autoblog exploring the legacy of Airstream Inc. and how it blends the small-town culture at its home base in Jackson Center, Ohio, with an eye for high-tech and innovation. To view the full story along with accompanying photos and videos click here.
There is no hotel in Jackson Center, Ohio. Leave your smartphone on for too long, and the battery will die searching for a cell signal. And if you’re driving through on State Route 274, make sure to drop your speed from 55 to 35 – there are children at play.
The two-square-mile town may look and feel like any other small town in America. But located right on Jackson Center’s main drag is the home of one of America’s most iconic brands: Airstream.
Airstream and its silver bullet-shaped trailers came to Jackson Center in 1952 from Los Angeles where they had been made since the late 1920s. Airstream founder Wally Byam showed up in town eager to find a Midwest manufacturing location for his business, which was booming as the country started learning to relax after World War II and the Great Depression.
Byam set up shop in an old factory that just ten years earlier had been making bazookas for American troops fighting in the war. The shop is still in use, mainly used for molding aluminum end caps for the Airstream trailers. But the company has spread across Jackson Center and employs around 400 people today.
What drew Byam to Ohio was simple – land was cheap and the workforce was eager. But that was then, and this is now.
Most of Airstream’s competitors are in Elkhart, IN about 175 miles away. If the company had decided to move and grow where there industry had taken roots, they’d have much easier access to parts and ready-trained labor. But Airstream is still in Ohio, and it’s thriving. So what is it about Jackson Center that has kept Airstream here for more than 60 years?
Looking at Airstream’s main production floor from above is like looking down at a hive. A woodshop studio that builds furniture for the trailers sits in the middle, while all the metal work is done around the perimeter of the building.
Hundreds of workers move seamlessly, as if in a dance, to assemble their specific part of the trailer. Thousands of parts must come together to make an average of 45 of the company’s signature silver trailers a week.
he view is a favorite of Airstream’s president and CEO Bob Wheeler. His office is on the mezzanine looking down where he can see everyday what makes Ohio and Jackson Center important to his company.
“Trying to move it somewhere else, it’s hard to imagine finding a workforce who can build an Airstream to the quality we’d expect,” he says. “We’ve got a great set of blueprints, but it takes hundreds of hours of experience to stretch and cut the aluminum, drill and place a solid rivet – it’s an absolute art form. You can’t put those in a blueprint, you can barely teach it.”
Wheeler joined the company in 2002 as vice president of product development and engineering. Three years later, when his predecessor and mentor Dicky Riegel left the company, Wheeler took over – just as the country was moving into another recession.
While Wheeler can never imagine moving Airstream anywhere else, he is, after all, a businessman. So staying in Ohio – and weathering a recession – has meant learning how to maximize efficiencies, cut costs when possible and minimize waste. It’s here that the home field advantage comes into play.
For the full story click here.