Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman (center, right) and Gov. Nathan Deal view the assembly line at the the Carterpillar factory near Bogart, where the first mini excavator (behind them) is nearly ready to come off the line.
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

New Athens plant key to Caterpillar

The top officer of the Illinois-based company that builds giant earthmovers said he found it in the grand opening celebration of Caterpillar’s sprawling factory here that straddles the Athens-Clarke and Oconee County line.

The factory, about 60 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, will be Caterpillar’s “global source” for “small-track” bulldozers and mini hydraulic excavators. It was a major manufacturing coup for Georgia when it was announced early last year. It was a win that took about $75 million in state and local incentives.

So far, about 300 of a promised 1,400 workers have been hired, and Oberhelman said he expects the plant to be fully operational and staffed by 2015. He said about 2,800 more jobs could follow from Caterpillar suppliers that are expected to locate near the new plant.

For a state still shaking off an economic slump that followed the Great Recession, it’s welcome news. Georgia’s unemployment rate still worse than the national average.

Softness in the mining sector resulted in disappointing earnings for Caterpillar in third quarter. Revenue slipped 18.4 percent compared to the prior year and Caterpillar lowered its sales and profit forecasts for 2013. Caterpillar has also temporarily idled some plants and cut thousands of jobs.

But Oberhelman said Caterpillar is committed to its new Georgia plant and sees better days ahead for the company.

“Georgia is very important to us in the scheme of our global footprint around the world,” he said.

Caterpillar has several other Georgia facilities, including ones in Griffin, LaGrange and Thomasville.

Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters the incentive package was “a small price to pay” for a facility and employment of this magnitude. He told the new Caterpillar employees that producing a highly-skilled workforce has become a hallmark for the state, and that they are ambassadors to show the world Georgia workers can build the highest quality products.

A resurgence of residential construction should provide a boost for the new Caterpillar plant. The small bulldozers and excavators built here are aimed at the residential market, road projects and other small-to medium-sized construction jobs. They’re also among the fastest growing in Caterpillar’s fleet, Oberhelman said.

Dillon Nelson, 21, of Winterville, was hired in February as a welder. He said he had few worries about getting work, but finding a place for a career was another matter.

“There are many places that offer short term jobs,” he said, “but there aren’t many places that offer a career like Caterpillar does.”

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