Local business sends parts to Iraq

By Kathy Jefcoats

Southern States Inc., a longtime employer in Hampton, has become a player in the rebuilding of Iraq with the making of utility parts shipped to the war-torn country.

The company contracts with a Minnesota firm helping to provide electricity as Iraqi towns and villages struggle to recover from shellings and firings that have destroyed utility equipment.

"When a substation is destroyed or they want to provide new electricity for shopping or residential areas, we make the pieces for the substations," said Raj Anand, Southern States president and chief executive officer.

The pieces are shipped to Houston, Texas, for a plane ride to Iraq. Although the company is taking an indirect role in the rebuilding, Anand said the role is taken seriously.

"For us, it is a high priority contract," he said. "We are putting aside other work to do whatever it takes to support this effort."

Employees are building circuit breakers that will be sent to Iraq this month n taking eight weeks to make what would normally take 16. The $61,000 contract was received at the end of June and will be ready to ship out Aug. 27.

"We are ready to supply what we have," said Anand.

An electrical substation consists of three basic pieces n a transformer to change voltage from high to low or low to high, a circuit breaker to protect the expensive transformer and a disconnect switch, a safety device to protect workers making repairs on the substation.

It is not the first time the company has responded to needs during wartime. Southern States Equipment Corp., based in Birmingham, bought Henderson Foundry and Machine Works in Hampton in 1940 to make munitions for the government during World War II.

The company was even given an E Award from the Army-Navy for excellence in munitions productions.

The Hampton plant, which expanded in 1953 and 1974, stopped making munitions when the war ended and took on the needs of the utility industry.

Though the company is one of Henry County's largest employers with almost 300 workers, less than 15 percent actually live in Henry, said Anand. It is a number he'd like to see increase.

"Most people don't know we're here," he said. "But we offer good wages and good employment to people in this area. And we're one of the few places still offering a defined benefit pension plan."

A number of workers start at 18 and stay 30 or 40 years. Bunnie Bostwick walked through the doors 32 years ago a single mother with a 2-year-old daughter she needed to support. Starting in the tin-dipping unit, Bostwick is now a lead machinist.

"I love it here," said Bostwick. "I raised my daughter and was able to send her to school by the grace of God and Southern States."

That toddler is now 34 and a hospital administrator, working a white collar job thanks to her mother's toil and sweat.

"I set a work ethic for her but I had to," she said. "Nothing is free, you have to earn it all. She's a workaholic just like me."

Greg Priest lived the opposite experience. His father spent 36 years at Southern States and helped his son get on 10 years ago. At the time, Priest was a college student working toward a career as a history teacher.

"I was ready to move out and get a place of my own," said Priest. "I couldn't do that in college. I was eager to get started on life."

Instead of dressing in suits and ties every day, facing the blank faces of students ready n or not n to learn about history, Priest dons comfortable clothes and gets his hands dirty.

"I have always enjoyed electronics work, it's hands-on," he said. "I've really enjoyed working here and made a lot of friendships. It's a good working environment."

It's also a place that embraces its own history. Visitors are greeted in the lobby with a portrait and brief history of company founder W. E. Mitchell, who died in January. A quote from Thomas A. Edison graces an opposite wall: "First be sure a thing is wanted or needed, then go ahead."

Determining need falls to Joe Rostron, vice president of product and market development, head of the company's development group.

"What he does isn't contributing to the company's bottom line right now but will become important in two or three years," said Marlin Gilbert, vice president of human resources. "For example, one of his team's inventions is helping us now but it took several years to complete."

The invention is the CapSwitcher, which switches high voltage capacitor banks. Southern States is the only company in the world making it and is seeking a patent on the equipment.

"You can't focus on today," Gilbert said. "You have to focus on the future."

But don't look for a CapSwitcher in your local department store. Southern States caters not to the retail world but to a handful of utility customers such as Georgia Power Co. and Georgia Transmission Co.

For more information on hiring, contact Gilbert at 770-946-4562.