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Made in Highlands County Labor Bureau: 66 manufacturers pay $5 million in wages

It's an often-heard refrain: there is no manufacturing in Highlands County. However, the Florida Bureau of Labor Market Statistics tell a slightly different story. Highlands County has 2,308 reporting units - employers who paid out $209 million in wages to 29,014 employees from January through March. Of those, 66 are manufacturers, and their employees earned $5.3 million. "The manufacturing classification can be from the small shop of just a few employees that produce a product to a large scale operation with 100 or more employees," said Alan Grimes, planning and operations analyst at Heartland Workforce. Manufacturing may mean water bottling, like Heartland Spring Water in Lake Placid. It can mean leather converting, which is what Sebring Custom Tanning does in the Sebring Airpark.
Logging is manufacturing, so is breaking bulk items into smaller lots, which is what Howard x does in Lake Placid. So what do manufacturers make in Highlands County? Russ Travers loved Sebring during a 1959 vacation, so he moved his tannery from Milwaukee. By 1986 though, he was out of business. The next year, son Dave Travers thought he'd just tan deer skins four or five months out of the year. "That turned into year around," Travers said. He expanded to tan the skins of steers and heifers that FFA students raise for their annual projects. By 1999, Sebring Regional Airport got a grant to build an 18,000 square-foot metal structure for Sebring Custom Tannery. "We're still busy at it," Travers said. "We have 10,000 customers, and we're still getting 5,000 skins a year." Dave's son Fraser is a third-generation tanner, and daughter Christie makes alligator purses that might sell for thousands of dollars in Bergdorf's or Neiman Marcus. Curiously, Travers said, 95 percent of all the hides his seven workers tan are from out of the county. "We get them from every state in the union. But it's all been from word of mouth. We have a website, but it's only a year old and it's mostly for instructions about how to mail a hide." For the record, salt the hide heavily, apply fresh salt five days later, then roll it in two plastic bags before sticking it in the mail. Travers still tans hides for FFA students, and there's the occasional deer hide, including Florida Key deer, where the average is a 30-pounder and is not much bigger than a medium-sized dog. Travers also gets exotics. "In the '90s, we got a mile a week of pythons," he said. Then Indonesia decided to keep the industry at home and made it illegal to send snake skins out of the country." Al Reyes is the production manager at Gen Pak. If you buy a meat dish from Publix, you're probably bringing home a Genpak product - not the food, the container. "They are one of our main customers," said Al Reyes. "We supply all the trays, especially the meat and poultry." Reyes swept floors 20 years ago. Now he's the plant manager. Back before Genpak bought Linpac, he said, "I started from the bottom. Entry level. Maintenance. I cleaned the machines, whatever." Of course, a degree in industrial engineering helped him climb the corporate ladder. Genpak, which makes plastic and foam cups, bowls, plates, paper cone cups, microwave safe containers, oven-ready bakery trays and hinged to-go containers and compostable products for food service and schools, bought the company from the British firm Lenpack in 2004. From 70 to 80 work at the facility in Sebring airpark. "This facility has been there since 1970," Reyes said, "My plant does mainly food containers and carry out containers." Turf Care Supply Corp. describes itself as the nation's largest provider of blended products to the turf, ornamental and grass seed industries. Turf Care specializes in granular and liquid fertilizer products, and operates the largest sulfur-coated urea manufacturing facility in the United States. Turf Care's products include ice-melt chemicals, grass seed varieties, and a set of weed, insect and fungus control solutions. The business is one of 50 owned by Platinum Equity, which was founded in 1995 by entrepreneur Tom Gores. Platinum Equity was recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the largest privately held companies in the U.S.; Gores is listed as one of the 400 Richest Americans. Maybe the biggest thing man has ever done is learn to fly. Lockwood Aircraft has done that a little better with the open cockpit AirCam. "It's a twin-engine camera plane," said CEO Phil Lockwood. While cars at Sebring International Raceway move as fast as they can, Lockwood is proud the AirCam flies low and slow. He encourages people to watch an eight-minute video at www.aircam.com. "That describes it better than I ever can." The video informs that while it's not recommended, AirCams can take off on one engine, then fly whisper quiet, just off idle, while burning as little as 3.5 gallons of fuel per hour. The AirCam was designed for National Geographic's mission in the Congo, Lockwood said. "We have almost 200 out there now. Mostly private individuals use them for fun." It's so light, it also takes off and lands in short places and handles at low speeds. With a large tail section, it doesn't make wide turns, it spins on a dime. And it floats on water. Instead of cruising over the clouds, the AirCam soars at birds-eye levels, where a pilot and a rear-seated passenger can enjoy air, sun, water and land. "We have a lot more we can do before we're done with it," Lockwood said. Lockwood has been making planes and kits since 1994 at the same Sebring Airpark location. "Back in the 1990s, we manufactured parts for other companies as well." Now, 20 workers concentrate on service and manufacturing. At Lockwood Aviation Repair, engines are overhauled; airframes are repaired. Lockwood Aviation Supply distributes Rotax engines and parts. "It's the most popular engine for the light sport aircraft," Lockwood said. "They're sold all over the world, and the AirCam uses those engines as well." On Jan. 1, Gulf Coast Supply will open the doors on a 110,000 square-foot facility at Sebring Airpark to manufacture metal roofing for homes, churches, schools, banks and industrial buildings. "We have various styles and thicknesses," said Jonathan Sherrill, president. If there are no rotten boards, in most cases, metal roofs can be installed directly over asphalt shingles, he said, which maintains the insulation value. The home office is in Horseshoe Beach, on the Gulf Coast west of Gainesville, so the Sebring facility will serve customers in the southern part of Florida, from I-4 to Melbourne to the Keys. "This is going to be an important area for us," Sherill said. "We expect this to grow, so there will be a heavy burden on Sebring." In addition, a showroom will sell directly to the end user, Sherill said. "We don't install, but we do train licensed contractors to install. They have to pass a test, and then we'll put them in our database," he said. Workers will be involved in production, loading, unloading, office sales, truck driving and mechanics, The company will be hiring through Coleen Dukes at Heartland Workforce, Sherill said. "We'll bring in experienced management, but we'll need up to 50 people at some point. One Labor Department definition of manufacturing is breaking down bulk products into smaller units, and that's what Howard Fertilizer & Chemical does in Lake Placid. Local customers ask for dry fertilizer in 1,000 pound supersacks, said Operations Manager Bryan Sigrist, or in 2,000 pound spreader-trailers. "Howard bought the property in October 2011," Sigrist said. "We started construction in November 2011, and we opened in October 2012. What Howard calls a chemical retail center was built to be close to large agricultural customers like citrus and sugar cane from Interstate 4 to the southern tip of Florida. Howard's headquarters remains in Orlando, but the company purchased the Oakley Brothers' packing plant on SR 70 and moved production to the heart of Florida's citrus, sugar cane and vegetable farmlands. Howard products wind up on Plant City strawberries, Imokalee tomatoes, and Highlands citrus and Homestead peppers, but the service area includes Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. "We will be neighbors in this dominant market area," President Robert Howard Jr. in a January 2012 press release. "The customer base is here and in South Florida," Sigrist said. "We are in a much better position to serve the customer, from a site prospective. Now, we are part of the community. "We take the order when others won't. Orders stop at 4 p.m., but we've had some folks here until 5:30, and we've continued to wait on them. If we hadn't, the customer wouldn't have the product when they needed it. When they've got 30 to 40 guys waiting for it, that costs them a lot of money." Other manufacturers at Sebring Airpark include laminate maker Funder America; Everglades Foods Seasonings and Sauces; and E-Stone's floor slabs, tiles, precast concrete and Granite Transformation cabinet tops for bathrooms and kitchens. Lead Products in Lake Placid has been making lead goods since 1947. Products include lead flashings, sheet lead, and lead fittings. The Andersons is a manufacturer and wholesale distribution terminal of industrial products and retail farm center. The Maumee, Ohio group sells dry and liquid fertilizers, and custom blends suspension, solution and foliar fertilizers. Headquartered in Sarasota, Florikan has operated since 1981. It remains an independent family business with 40 employees that manufacture and distribute controlled-release Nutricote and Florikote fertilizers. The Sebring Florikan plant makes the sort of plastic pots that contain landscape plants. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828