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Expansion marks factory's recovery from recession's depths

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For the third time since it opened in 2004, the Sogefi auto parts factory in Wayne County is expanding. But it hasn't been an easy nine years in an industry that saw some deep lows during the recent recession.

On Nov. 12, Gov Earl Ray Tomblin visited the plant in the A. Michael Perry Prichard Industrial Park to announce Sogefi will invest $20 million add 250 jobs at the plant by early 2015. The announcement came about a month after Tomblin met with Sogefi Group CEO Guglielmo Fiocchi during a European investment mission.

The plant's 160 workers manufacture fuel pumps, fuel filters and oil filters for automobile engines. Parts made at the plant are used by several manufacturers, including Toyota, Ford, Fiat, Chrysler, BMW, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia. The plant produces more than 5 million pumps and filters annually.

General Manager Troy Thomas says 25 vehicle models use parts made at Prichard.

Sogefi has already begun the process of hiring engineers and other professional people for the expansion. Other workers will be added later as machinery is installed in a large vacant at the rear of the existing building.

It's a turnaround from four years ago. North American auto production was down about 40 percent, and the factory was down to about 45 employees, Thomas said.

"Sogefi is a diverse company. They've got multiple different kinds of product lines," Thomas said. "We had already begun the process to introduce the fluid filtration product line here at Prichard. That's been a good decision because the last four years we've already seen a lot of growth in that product line, and it's given us confidence to continue investing."

The Prichard factory was Sogefi's first in North America, although the company has been in business since 1980. The Prichard plant was a $37 million investment when it opened in 2004. In 2007, th company completed a $7 million investment that added engine filter systems to its product line. In 2012, it added 45 jobs and invested $5.5 million in facility and equipment upgrades.

The expansion announced Nov. 12 will enable the plant to make intake manifolds for General Motors vehicles.

"We have not previously had GM as a customer, and we will add them in 2014 — next year. Now we will be a supplier to all the U.S. Big Three car makers and a few others," Thomas said.

During the formal announcement at the plant of the expansion, Tomblin said Sogefi's decision was a vote of confidence in what the state is doing and in its work force.

"We're going to keep showing the world why they should do business in West Virginia," Tomblin said.

Keith Burdette, secretary of commerce for West Virginia, said the state Economic Development Authority  last month approved a $750,000 loan for the project. It was a small part of a $20 million decision, but it was important nevertheless, he said.

Sogefi is also receiving tax credits based on employment levels, and it will receive a grant for training new workers, Burdette said. Burdette said he did not have an exact number of what the incentives totaled. He said the aid was the norm for similar factory expansions in West Virginia.

When asked what other states vied for the Sogefi expansion, Thomas said he was not at liberty to list them.

"There was competition for the investment and the job growth," he said. "That's all the details I can give you, but it wasn't an obvious decision."

According to a news release from the governor's office, the expansion had been discussed between state officials and company officials since last year.

Plant modifications, which include repurposing the plant's existing space of 215,000 square feet of production, warehouse and office area, are scheduled to begin in January 2014 and finish by May. New equipment is set to arrive beginning in May and through August 2014.