Little Rock attic ladder plant expands

AP News
Posted: Dec 21, 2009 4:47 PM

A Little Rock factory that produces folding attic ladders announced Monday it is doubling its work force so it can meet orders from Lowe's Cos. home improvement stores and other new customers.

Century Industries, now one of the largest minority-owned businesses in the state, had 40 workers two months ago. The company has hired 36 new employees, with 14 positions still to be filled. An additional 50 jobs may open in the next year and a half.

Chief Executive Officer Roger Ball credited state and federal programs that enabled the company to get tax breaks and grants to hire consultants. The training led Century to become efficient enough to compete with companies with overseas factories, where workers earn less than $3 per hour.

Century workers are paid an average of $10.50 per hour, Ball said. Plus, the company pays 100 percent of its workers health insurance.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who spoke at a Monday ceremony, noted that small businesses employ 70 percent of the work force and that an important part of economic development is to help existing businesses.

"If you forget who's already here, then you've made a huge mistake," Beebe said.

The state has lost 27,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 12 months, but it has gained almost all of them back with new plant openings. He said Arkansas has "not ceded (manufacturing) to other countries."

"The manufacturing might of America, it's still here, here in Arkansas," Beebe said.

After the speeches, the employees got back to work, cutting kiln-dried yellow pine for rails and steps, attaching fittings and sliding the folded finished products into cardboard boxes.

Century is shipping boxed folding ladders to Lowe's for the chain's retail stores. The company will also fill orders from Lowe's and Home Depot's Web sites, and will supply Dallas-based Southwest Moulding Co., a major Texas building supplier.

The company worked with UPS to develop a way to box the ladders so they don't have to be assembled by the customer but still can be shipped on an individual basis. Ball said the firm has applied for a patent on its packaging design.

Privately-held Century opened in Little Rock in 1983; a subsidiary in Lumberton, N.C., makes specialty windows.

Ball, who has been CEO for 2 1/2 years, said it was not long ago that the Little Rock facility was down to two- or three-day work weeks, and he thanked employees who stuck it out. Now, Century is running six days a week.

"We have not missed one Lowe's delivery date," Ball said.