Making Cars in the Great Lakes: Inside Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant

Before I left Chicago for points east, I had a chance to tour Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, a complex that finishes about 1160 vehicles a day. A great majority of those are Ford Explorers, pieced together by line workers wearing safety glasses and headphones, working pneumatic tools in a hypnotizing ballet of endless repetition. Whir, whir, whir.

Walking the floor, following pedestrian pathways marked by bright yellow paint, I watched linemen and women raise engine assemblies into vehicle bodies, hang doors and bolt wheels, as conveyor belts ceaselessly inched the unfinished machines ever forward. (A tip: When touring the plant, one steps over the drive-chains running through channels in the floor.)

My tour guide Larry, a dead ringer for Jesse Ventura, even let me jump in a just-finished Explorer the moment it rolled off the line. Videographer Stephen Greenwood, who’s riding along for this part of my ride, captured the mesmerizing shots after the break.

Traveling the American Road – Ford Assembly Plant Tour

Gulfstream’s $500 million expansion of Savannah, GA headquarters to create 1,000 jobs

According to many pundits, the so-called recession that gripped the world in 2009 is far from “over,” but we’ve been noticing steady signs of recovery in the travel industry over the course of 2010. While consumers and businesspeople alike are still pinching pennies and thinking twice as hard about where their funds are going, more and more bodies are moving about, particularly by plane. Gulfstream, which maintains a headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, seems more convinced than ever that we’re on the rebound, and it’s announcing today a huge investment that’ll better position it “to meet future demand for business-jet aircraft and support services.”

The spend? $500 million over the next seven years, and that’ll buy significant expansion of its Savannah plant as well as around 1,000 full-time Gulfstream Aerospace jobs (a hike of about 15 percent from its current level of 5,500 employees). According to Savannah Now, those positions will include production specialists, engineers, and support technicians. Needless to say, quite a few folks in the Peach State are celebrating the news, with Gov. Sonny Perdue being one of many on hand today for the announcement. Moreover, the expansion will result in new facilities at the northwest quadrant of the Savannah / Hilton Head International Airport.

Gulfstream suggests that the investment will also help it meet a growing demand for large-cabin aircraft, with large chunks of the cash used to build production plants for G650 (“Like a G6!”) and G250 jets, as well as maintenance capacity for all of the models that the company manufactures. Unsurprisingly, we’re hearing that the bulk of that demand is coming from international clients (Asia Pacific, specifically), but the company seems bound and determined to keep its roots in the south.

We know Gulfstream doesn’t speak for the entire aviation industry, but it’s definitely good to see a major player like this making such a tremendous investment in the future of air travel. Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of a beautiful turnaround.

[Via Twitter (@mksteele)]

Dim Sum Dialogues: Family Business

I arrive at the Houston Center of East Tsim Sha Tsui dripping in sweat – a product of the battle between Hong Kong’s unforgiving humidity and my mild-weather Californian blood. I’m here to meet with 23-year-old Ray Lok, a mutual friend and aspiring businessman in Hong Kong. I hope that a quick breather in the air-conditioned lobby will help dry out my shirt, but within minutes I see him step out of the elevator – dressed in a sharp striped shirt – no tie, chequered trousers, and fashionable black shoes. He approaches me with a slight grin and says “Why are you sweating? Did you run here?”

In the elevator up to his waterfront office, we exchange business cards. His reads “Ray Lok, Director – Yulok Company Limited”. He comments on the thickness of my business card, “Where did you get these made? I think this is now the thickest business card in my collection”. We laugh and walk through a series of rooms strung with countless plastic & woven bags hanging from metal racks. Next to the bags are an array of textiles and various clothing fabrics.

He explains that the Yulok Company specializes in manufacturing carrier bags for retail stores around the world – South Africa, Israel, Australia, and throughout Europe. They range from simple bags with printed logos to custom designed bags for carrying bottles of wine. The Yulok Company also mass-produces simple plastic bags found in supermarkets, plastic trash bags, and more obscure products like billions of stirrers for coffee cups – it’s a diverse inventory.

Ray’s parents started the company in 1979, when his mother was employed by a trading company and approached by a client to help start a new venture. The success of the business took off despite the economic downturn in the 90’s – and at one point the Yulok Company maintained three factories in Hong Kong. Because of rising costs and regulations, they’ve since moved their factory to Vietnam – a complicated process that involved completely disassembling the factory machinery, relocating and then reassembling it.

Like many other young people in Hong Kong, Ray went abroad for his education – graduating in 2008 from USC’s International Relations & Global Business program. He remarks that he was impressed by students that were able to work jobs and study full time – and enjoyed his professors in the program. But he argues that the course itself wasn’t interesting and often inapplicable to business in Hong Kong. His real education came from sitting in on meetings as a child and watching his parents run the company.

For lunch, Ray leads me to a fancy Chinese restaurant a few floors below the office. The hostesses immediately recognize him, which is no surprise – he says he’s been coming here for 23 years. I ask whether or not he felt pressured to come take over the family business after school, and he shrugs saying that there was never any family conversation about it – as a male in a Chinese family it was expected of him. I ask him if this bothers him, if he’d rather be doing anything else, and he replies “It’s better than working at a bank” – referring to the large majority of the young, educated Hong Kong workforce.

We discuss the new plastic bag tax that hit Hong Kong’s consumers on July 1st of this year. There’s a 50¢ fee for every plastic bag used at supermarkets and convenience stores. It doesn’t concern him because he’s seen it implemented in other countries only to fail shortly after. He says that consumers often blame manufacturers for the environmental damage caused by plastic bags, but in reality it’s not the manufacturer’s fault – it’s how the consumers use and dispose of them.

Ray wants to expand into larger production of biodegradable bags, but adds that the government isn’t funding R&D enough to make them truly efficient…claiming that biodegradables can be just as bad for the environment as plastic bags are.

It seems that he’s genuinely concerned about environmental issues, but effectively dismisses any claim directed against the plastic bag industry. My ignorance on the subject forces me to return to my crispy noodles, hot tea, and sweet egg tarts. I ask him about his hobbies and aspirations, and he mentions that he’d like to explore an internet startup if he can find the time. His ideal dream would be to own a boat and escape Hong Kong on the weekends, but for now he spends his free time shooting photographs & toying around with fast cars.

It’s hard to pry deep into his personal aspirations – so I revert back to business.

We finish our lunch, and I ask him if he’s happy working so much at his age. He replies that his parents always told him “When you’re young, you sacrifice your health in exchange for money, and when you’re old you use your money in exchange for health.” I laugh to myself, and consider the truth in that statement. Wise words for a young professional in Hong Kong.