Barry-Wehmiller has a funny way of valuing its employees

Closing a high-performing L.A.-area plant and transferring skilled jobs to lower-paid workers in Ohio doesn't square with the CEO's saccharine prattle of caring about 'team members.'

You'd be hard pressed to find a company that talks more about its "people-centric" management culture than Barry-Wehmiller, a privately owned manufacturer of industrial equipment.

Barry-Wehmiller, which has $1.5 billion in annual sales, says it's all about fostering "personal growth" among its 7,000 employees, whom it calls "team members." Its "Guiding Principles of Leadership" include the imperative to "treat people superbly and compensate them fairly." (Italics are theirs.)

The chief yogi of this philosophy is Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Chapman, who gives talks about the "crisis of leadership" in corporate America, lamenting that "over 130 million people in our workforce go home every day feeling they work for a company that doesn't care about them." With a catch in his throat and possibly a tear in his eye, he told one audience in May about the "awesome responsibility" he shoulders for "the lives that are influenced by my leadership."

Hey, Bob? Tell it to the 111 steelworkers you're laying off in Southern California so you can transfer their jobs to a lower-paid workforce in Ohio (with the help of a "job creating" tax break from the latter state).

These workers — excuse me, "team members" — are employed by Barry-Wehmiller's Pneumatic Scale Angelus plant in Vernon. When they reported to work Nov. 2, they were handed a five-paragraph statement advising them that the company had decided to shut the plant by Jan. 1. Only a few weeks earlier, the company had staged a ceremony at the plant in recognition of its record sales.

The notice said the workers would be paid through the end of the year, but to avoid "personal injury to you or harm to equipment or products ... because of this distraction," they should go home and stay home. In the meantime, the company would negotiate the "tentative closing decision" with their representatives from the United Steel Workers union. USW officials have told me it's clear that the decision is anything but tentative.

The 60-day notice, which is required by state law whenever a big layoff is in the offing, was signed by the company's director of "people and culture development." "That notice was the first anyone heard of their plans," says Douglas Marshall, 71, who retired last year after 23 years as a machinist at Angelus.

You may never have heard of Angelus, so here's some background on what used to be one of California's most community-oriented businesses.

Founded by Henry L. Guenther in 1910 as the Angelus Sanitary Can Machine Co., the firm produced "can seamers." These machines fuse the lids of metal cans to their bodies. Angelus' models, which were the gold standard in the packaging industry, can be found in bottling plants all over the world. Hoist a can of Coke or a cold beer, and the chances are roughly 4 in 5 that it was produced on an Angelus machine.

"They were the Rolls-Royce of machines," says Gil Salazar, who spent 43 years in the industry — the last five as a field representative for Angelus — before retiring this month. "The Angelus people were craftsmen, which is something the United States doesn't have anymore."

After Guenther and his wife, Pearl, died in the 1950s, control of Angelus passed to a nonprofit foundation she had established. Its profits every year went into the Henry L. Guenther Foundation's coffers and out to dozens of worthy Los Angeles charities, chiefly health and medical institutions.

In 2007, pressured by the IRS to comply with rules forbidding ownership of a profit-making company by a nonprofit, the foundation sold Angelus to Barry-Wehmiller for $84 million, according to a foundation tax filing. Since then, the foundation has had no involvement with Angelus. But it has continued to make millions of dollars in donations every year: The Salk Institute, St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Mercy Hospital in San Diego and the Braille Institute in Los Angeles all ranked among its top beneficiaries in 2011.

Barry-Wehmiller, for its part, promptly applied its "people-centric" policies at Angelus, former employees told me. Non-union managers got their holidays pared back, their pensions frozen and their healthcare premiums jacked up.

"They let us know that was what they were looking to do with the union workers too," recalls Chuck Johnson, a USW shop steward at the plant for more than 20 years. A layoff hit 33 members of the Angelus local last year. Chapman made occasional appearances at the plant but never spoke with the unionized employees, Johnson says.

I called Chapman at Barry-Wehmiller's headquarters in suburban St. Louis so he could help me reconcile his words and his actions. But neither he nor anyone else from the firm called me back, apparently content to let his logorrhea do the talking.

And talk he does. His appearance in May at an Illinois event affiliated with the TED organization seemed to be typical. (TED is a lecture series allowing self-styled visionaries and CEO types to put their personal awesomeness on display, but the results can be hit-or-miss.) Chapman's TED talk was vaguely spiritual, filled with the buzz of sincerity and the buzzwords of self-actualization — "We've been paying people for their hands for years, and they would have given us their heads and their hearts for free if we had just known how to ask them and say, 'Thank you for sharing.'" Etc., etc.

There do seem to be Barry-Wehmiller locations where its Guiding Principals of Leadership hold sway. A USW analysis called the firm "paternalistic" and acknowledged it treats employees with "a lot of respect and kindness." A United Auto Workers representative in Green Bay, Wis., told me the 330 UAW workers at the firm's large printing-equipment plant there enjoy excellent relations with management, not least because in taking over the plant, Barry-Wehmiller kept it from folding.

"As a workplace, we should be envied," UAW local President Pat Vesser said.

That hasn't been the experience at Angelus. When the foundation sold the factory it had a healthy order backlog and plenty of overtime. But soon after the 2007 takeover, the employees in Los Angeles, where the average hourly wage was about $25, saw that their work was being shifted to a non-union plant in Ohio, where the wage was $16 to $18, according to the USW.

The company even cadged a five-year, $760,000 tax credit from a state development fund in Ohio for promising to add 75 jobs there — a hint of how a smart company may be playing the job-creation game for profit while actually cutting employment.

The average age of the Angelus workforce is 54, and the average worker has been there for decades. But there's no sign that any economic development agencies in California, Los Angeles County or Vernon stepped up to try to save the more than 100 jobs at stake. Could they have helped? Who knows. The Angelus workers say Vernon owns the lease on the factory, but there doesn't seem to have been an effort by the city to cut the rent.

Barry-Wehmiller has firmly turned away USW proposals to keep the Vernon plant running, says Steve Bjornbak, 56, a 38-year veteran of Angelus and the USW local's president. He suspects the company plans to revive limited operations with lower-wage employees in California later, "after they've dissolved the union." There will be talks after the first of the year over severance, healthcare and retirement benefits for the laid-off workforce.

No one disputes that Barry-Wehmiller is perfectly within its rights to find the cheapest way to manufacture whatever it wishes, wherever it wishes. But its actions at Angelus don't exactly measure up to Bob Chapman's saccharine prattle about running one of those organizations that "truly care about the impact they make on the lives of the people that join them."

"This is all about people's lives," Chapman told his TED audience. Right you are, Bob.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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