Gainesville's ZF Group was honored Thursday as one of Georgia's manufacturers of the year for what many say is the company's spirit of continual innovation.
"You don't just stay in business and become successful by doing what brought you here," said Lanier Technical College President Russell Vandiver, who was instrumental in recruiting ZF to Georgia 25 years ago. "There's a lot of changes they've made over the years to stay current."
ZF was recognized by the Technical College System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Economic Development as the state's leading medium-size manufacturer, distinguished among other nominees with 500 employees or less. ZF Group encompasses ZF Industries, a transmission-manufacturing company, and ZF Wind Power, a newly formed wind turbine gear box development company.
ZF President Elizabeth Umberson said the distinction is a testament to the strength of the company's nearly 500 Georgia employees and whole North American workforce, which is made up of just under 6,000 people.
"To be honored like that when you look at the companies that were nominated, to be singled out like that was really special for us," Umberson said.
ZF Industries opened its Gainesville auto transmissions plant in 1987. The company considered several locations when deciding where to make its move into the clean-energy market, including sites in the western United States where much of the wind turbine industry is located.
Umberson said the company's pre-existing relationships with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, Lanier Technical College and the state's Quick Start employee training program were instrumental in the decision to build in Gainesville.
ZF Wind Power is currently moving in machinery and hiring employees for the new plant in the Gainesville Business Park.
The plant will produce wind turbine gear boxes that are at the core of the company's commitment to innovation and sustainability. The average wind turbine goes through three gear boxes in its 20-year lifespan. ZF's boxes will last the full 20 years.
The company's tagline is "Innovations of Great Value" and Umberson said the message is more than just words.
"We run that on our materials because we believe in it so strongly," she said. "We believe that by providing innovation, quality and service that we are going to provide value to our customers. ... All of that innovation helps us improve fuel efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and helps sustainability for our customers."
Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce who attended Thursday's luncheon in Atlanta with some 40 others from Gainesville, said ZF has not only been a leader in manufacturing but in civic responsibility. The company is active with United Way, the Rehabilitation Industries Of Northeast Georgia and other nonprofits.
"ZF is just a super partner for this community and their associates, their employees are very visible throughout the community," he said.
Gus Whalen, Gainesville resident and founder of the Featherbone Communiversity was instrumental in starting the Manufacturing Appreciation Week and awards in 1995. Whalen said he and others involved wanted to clear up misconceptions about the manufacturing world.
"Young people particularly we felt still suffered at that time with misconception of what manufacturing was and the kinds of jobs that are in manufacturing," he said. "It was not a smoke stack industry and was high tech, high pay and high skill."
The first awards luncheon was attended by 122 people, compared to the 1,500 who participated Thursday.
Several Northeast Georgia companies have been recognized in the event's history including Kubota Manufacturer of America and Wrigley Manufacturing Co.
Savannah-based LMI Kitting was recognized this year as the small-sized manufacturer of the year, with Meggitt Polymers and Composites of Rockmart taking home the large manufacturer award.
Gov. Nathan Deal was scheduled to be at the event but cancelled as he spent much of Thursday touring the state's storm damage.