KEARNEY — When Eaton Corp. opened its engine valve production plant in Kearney in September 1969, an “us vs. them” mentality dominated the the U.S. automotive industry.
Eaton’s leadership wanted to create a different approach. Rather than having workers’ unions pitted against management, Eaton desired an environment in which all employees were considered equal and wanted to contribute their best as team members.
What resulted is known today across the company as the Eaton Philosophy, and it was introduced at the Kearney plant, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“We were an experimental plant,” said Sandy Herren, administrative assistant at the Eaton-Kearney plant from 1983 to 2011.
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E. Madell deWindt, chairman of the board for what then was called Eaton Yale and Towne Corp., said at the plant dedication on Sept. 12, 1969, that all factory employees, regardless of their level, were paid salaries, and that other policies were aimed at fostering a confident, dedicated and hardworking team.
“We can buy machinery and build a plant,” deWindt said, “but the key to successful operation is the people.”
Bob Dyer, who began working at the plant just weeks after it opened and eventually was promoted to plant manager, said the Eaton Philosophy tossed a lot of conventional corporate mentality out the window at that time. For example, there was no time clock at the Kearney plant, and there’s still no time clock today.
Trusting employees, encouraging everyone to share their ideas to improve the plant’s performance, and believing that all employees genuinely contribute their best and do what’s right were the bedrock of the Eaton Philisophy, said Dyer, who began as a machine operator.
After he was promoted to manager of the Kearney plant, he also was placed in charge of other Eaton manufacturing facilities in the United States and overseas, which were located in Iowa, South Carolina, Poland, Brazil, China, Spain, Italy and Germany.
The Eaton Philosophy was deployed at the company’s other manufacturing facilities, and according to a history of the Eaton Corp., all of the company’s employees would be treated as equals.
Ron Lunbery, who supervises Kearney’s tool and die department and has worked 38 years at the plant, said the people at the factory are more than a cohesive team, “they’re like a family. I could write a book about the people I’ve met out here.”
The people who created the Eaton Philosophy wanted team members at all levels to be encouraged to contribute their thoughts to the decision-making process.
The philosophy, which was built on the belief that all employees want to do their best, was credited with reducing absenteeism by 35 percent and for improving the relationship between employees and managers.
Lunbery said he was a junior at Axtell High School when construction began on the Kearney plant. Later, when he heard about the pay and benefits, he became interested in working at Eaton-Kearney.
“They wanted people who really worked hard, who were self-directed,” he said.
As many as 1,000 people, including temporary full-timers, have been employed at any one time at Eaton-Kearney. Today, the plant employs about 500 and it has expanded from producing engine valves to also manufacturing gears.
Kearney has a high profile among the company’s manufacturing facilities because of its ability to produce top-quality parts for demanding customers. Lunbery, who has shared his expertise in plants in Europe and Asia, said he’s grateful for the opportunity to travel globally and share his skills.
“On my first day, when I saw how many valves they were making, I couldn’t imagine the world could use so many valves,” Lunbery said.
He said Kearney employees are proud that their valves and gears wind up in so many vehicles.
“You take a lot of pride when you see a car and you know it has Eaton valves in it,” Lunbery said.