Dec 24, 2018

For Lufkin, the Good Times Return

Reporting Texas

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit, a Mark 640 pumping unit adorned with 1,000 Christmas lights, stands in the Lufkin Mall parking lot in Lufkin, Texas. Rudolph has been a winter tradition in Lufkin since 1966. Vicky Camarillo/Reporting Texas.

LUFKIN — For the past few years, the Lufkin Industries Christmas display has been a mixed message for East Texans.

The huge oil pumping unit decked out as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has delighted children since 1966. But for some parents and grandparents, it summons memories of past glory, when Lufkin workers made these fixtures of the oil patch, when this city of about 35,000 was home to the nation’s largest and oldest pumping unit manufacturer.

General Electric bought out Lufkin Industries for $3.3 billion in 2013; five years and hundreds of layoffs later, the corporation has shuttered the downtown Lufkin foundry and the nearby Buck Creek plant, shifting those jobs to facilities in California, Europe and Asia.

This year, though, like the pumping unit, Lufkin is on the rise again.

The loss of the downtown foundry was a blow to the community, Lufkin Mayor Bob Brown said, “but we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves. We just hitched our britches up and got busy.”

An array of new companies — a couple of lumber production plants, a power transmission equipment manufacturer and a gas treatment facility — have announced plans to build plants in the Lufkin area, together bringing about 500 jobs. City officials say the companies were drawn by the area’s natural resources — namely, Southern yellow pine — and a talented workforce in the 12-county Deep East Texas region.

Lufkin is about 120 miles northeast of Houston in the heart of the Piney Woods. Two of the early engines of Lufkin’s industrial growth were Southland Paper Mills and Texas Foundries, a malleable iron foundry, both established around 1940. Those companies met their downfall in the 2000s: Abitibi-Bowater Inc., which had acquired the paper mill, shut down the company in 2007, three years after idling it “indefinitely” and laying off 600 people. Texas Foundries, then owned by Citation Corp., closed in 2009, with 300 layoffs.

And then there was Lufkin Industries, founded in 1902 as the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Co. It started as a sawmill machinery shop, then began producing oilfield equipment during World War I as the sawmill business declined. The production of other products, including trailers and commercial gears, followed.

By the 1950s, the company had established a worldwide reputation for its pumping units, commercial gears and cargo trailers, according to a 2002 edition of the East Texas Historical Journal. The company’s Buck Creek facility, a trailer manufacturing location south of Lufkin, opened in 1970, the same year that the company changed its name to Lufkin Industries. That was a roaring decade for Lufkin Industries — there were 20 pumping unit makers in the 1950s. Lufkin was one of only two that remained in the 1970s.

In 2013, the year that General Electric took over, it employed 4,300 people in plants around the world. The following year, GE said it planned to invest $60 million in renovations at the foundry. That never happened.

By January 2015, with the crash of oil prices, the layoffs began — first 330 jobs, then 245 more in March. Then came a bombshell in August: The foundry would cease to exist, and GE would eliminate 262 positions in the foundry and the Buck Creek facility. In June 2018, GE closed the Buck Creek facility completely, affecting 78 employees.

After a merger with Baker Hughes, GE/Lufkin Industries became Baker Hughes, a GE Company. The downtown Lufkin site currently comprises rod lift operations, gearbox manufacturing and support personnel. Baker Hughes does not disclose employee numbers, but the city of Lufkin estimates there are about 300 employees.

Larry Cordova, 76, retired from GE/Lufkin Industries in 2014, a year before the foundry closed. He worked in gear assembly, so his job likely would’ve been safe. But like the average Lufkinite, he remembers the news as “depressing.”

“When GE bought it, I said it might be good or it could be really bad, and it turned out to be really bad,” Cordova said. “There were ups and downs and bad times through the years, but I feel like if local people still owned it, it would still be going. Just waiting for things to get better, like it always does.”

For several years, city officials have faced criticism from residents that the area is turning into a retirement community, with its two hospitals and the constant sprouting of new restaurants and stores. In August, below a Facebook post by the Lufkin Daily News about the city’s economic development corporation approving an incentive package for a new business, a user wrote: “Let me guess, another Chinese restaurant?”

The story was, in fact, about Twin Disc Inc., a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of power transmission equipment that promises at least 50 new jobs in Lufkin. Construction will begin in mid-January.

In May, Angelina Forest Products purchased the former Buck Creek facility and announced plans to build a $100 million sawmill. The company is set to open in 2019 and hire more than 100 full-time employees.

Sterling Lumber Co., a maker of timber mats that protect the ground from heavy machinery, began hiring employees on the spot during a job fair in early December, according to the Lufkin Daily News. The company is set to begin full operations in the Buck Creek facility, sharing the space with Angelina Forest Products, in August 2019 and bring 150 new jobs.

Align Midstream Partners II announced this year that it commissioned a new gas gathering and treatment facility a few miles north of Lufkin. Though the number of new jobs is unclear, the company said it intends to invest $30 million in the facility over the next 18 months.

The past year has also seen expansions, or promises of expansions, of a few existing businesses: Atkinson Candy Co., Lockheed Martin, American eChem and LufTex Gears.

Although Lufkin’s unemployment rate grew slightly after 2014, reaching 5.8 percent in 2016, the population remained steady: Between 2010 and 2017, Lufkin saw a 2 percent growth.

“People in East Texas are just a little more resilient, and they try to stay where they were born and raised,” Brown, the mayor, said. “It is a community that puts its shoulder to the wheel and gets something done.”

Industry is returning to Lufkin, drawing responses of excitement and relief from residents. Rudolph continues to bob up and down in the Lufkin Mall parking lot, and some people, like Brown, see it as a sign of hope.

For others, like former Lufkin Industries employee Randall Williams, 35, it’s a reminder of what was lost. Williams, who left his gear repair job in 2015 for medical reasons, was a third-generation employee: His father and both of his grandfathers had worked there — his paternal grandfather selling pumping units, his dad heat-treating components for the units. Lufkin Industries helped put food on the family’s table for generations.

Williams feels conflicted when he sees Rudolph.

“After GE took over, after the layoffs and everything, it started to seem more like a slap in the face. But it’s been a tradition for longer than I’ve been alive,” Williams said. “I would like to see Rudolph stay, but at the same time, what they’ve done to the community, to the families here …” Williams paused a few seconds, “I don’t agree with it.”