KEARNEY — A lot has changed in the 50 years since Eaton Yale and Towne opened an engine valve factory in Kearney.

Eaton expected its $13 million, 140,000-square-foot plant on Kearney’s east side would produce about 12 million valves per year, all for its sole customer, the Ford Motor Co.

Today, the Eaton team of almost 500 produces 80 million valves and 7 million gears per year, and they’re shipped around the globe to a host of customers.

On Saturday evening, almost 800 current and former Eaton-Kearney employees gathered at the Younes Conference Center to toast the factory’s successes and its contributions to the community.

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“This team deserves to celebrate. Everyone has been a big part of our success. You have shaped the plant into what it is today,” said Plant Manager Landon Lueshen to the crowd who filled the Younes Center’s largest dining hall.

The Kearney plant is regarded in the Eaton Corp. as a pioneer in employee relations and productivity, while an emphasis also is placed on community engagement.

In 2018 the Kearney plant received a number of awards, including Eaton Corp.’s Stover Award for community volunteerism. Eaton also won Business of the Year from the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kearney Hub Freedom Award for volunteerism. The plant’s emergency response team won Eaton’s Lifesaver Award for saving a trucker who suffered a heart attack while delivering materials to the factory.

On Sept. 12, 1969, when Nebraska Gov. Norbert Tiemann, Eaton President E. Mandell deWindt and plant manager Don Roberts dedicated the Kearney plant, its operating philosophy was a departure from the automotive industry’s “we vs. them” mentality that pitted management against labor.

The Kearney plant was first to employ what became known as the Eaton Philosophy that was based on the belief that all employees at every level want to contribute to the company’s success. The philosophy stressed safety and trust. All employees were salaried, and there never has been a time clock in the Kearney plant.

However, employees are assigned clock numbers that represents their seniority and tenure.

At Saturday night’s banquet, 18 retired employees were honored for their low clock numbers. One of them was Bob Dyer, who was among the plant’s original employees and worked his way up the ladder to become plant manager. Dyer managed the Kearney plant and supervised plants in Iowa, South Carolina, Poland, Brazil, China, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Bill Clark was recognized as the active employee with the longest tenure, while Ron Lunbery has logged perfect attendance since 1981. New employee Rey Rodriguez was voted rookie of the year.

Dyer was applauded as he spoke about Kearney’s winning attitude and performance.

“My job was made easy because of all you people,” Dyer said. “We had hundreds of corporate leaders come through the Kearney plant to learn how we did it. They left shaking their heads, wondering how they would achieve the same success in their plants, but they didn’t have the Kearney people.”

Dyer’s words echoed those of the corporation’s president at the plant dedication in 1969.

E. Mandell deWindt said, “We can buy machinery and build a plant, but the key to successful operation is the people.”

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