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Malco Products is hosting a grand opening ceremony Friday at the former Vise-Grip plant in DeWitt, which it bought and plans to reopen.

Gene Tyser started working at the former Vise-Grip plant in DeWitt in 1975 as a tool and die maker.

Over the years he worked all the way up to be general manager of the plant in 2002, the same year Newell Rubbermaid bought out American Tool, the company that had bought Irwin Industrial Tools, formerly Petersen Manufacturing Co., in 1993.

Tyser was let go in 2005, three years before Newell Rubbermaid announced it was closing the plant and sending manufacturing of the iconic Vise-Grip locking pliers to China, leaving 330 people in the Saline County town out of work.

He said he tried to keep some semblance of the business going in DeWitt, buying forge lines, including furnaces and punch presses, from the shuttered plant. His intent was to find an investor that would help him restart a tool company, but the dream never came to fruition, so the equipment all went into storage.

Tyser, who watched many of his neighbors move away or find jobs in other towns, said it's "a dream" that the plant has a new owner that's ready to reopen it and make tools again.

Malco Products, a Minnesota-based company that makes specialty tools, mostly for the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning industry, bought the former factory in 2016 and has been working on renovating it for more than a year.

The company is holding a grand opening ceremony Friday, when it plans to announce a new line of products to be manufactured there.

Though Malco declined to reveal details ahead of time, it appears DeWitt will once again be a manufacturing site for a locking-tool product.

According to information published earlier this year by the University of Wisconsin-Stout's Manufacturing Outreach Center, DeWitt will be the manufacturing site for Malco's new Eagle Grip locking pliers, which will hit the market next spring.

"Everything about this is right," said Tyser, who has been working with Malco as a consultant as it works to restart production at the plant. "If you could find the perfect match, they'd be it."

Gov. Pete Ricketts said he is "really excited" to have Malco in Nebraska.

Manufacturing, which is the state's second-largest industry after agriculture, is growing, having added more than 4,500 jobs in the state in the past year. And companies such as Malco provide good-paying jobs not just in Omaha and Lincoln but also in smaller towns such as DeWitt, Ricketts said.

"Reopening this plant really says manufacturing is important" in the state, he said.

Right now, there aren't a lot of people working at Malco in DeWitt. The company is still in the process of developing prototypes and so only has a "modest staff" in place, said Malco President and CEO Mardon Quandt.

But Eric Peterson, Malco's sales and marketing director, said it was important to have a grand opening ceremony now because the end of the month marks 10 years since the plant closed.

"Friday's a big day for us," he said.

It was Peterson who helped his bosses zero in on DeWitt as an expansion opportunity.

He said he was familiar with the plant because he had worked for its previous owner, American Tool, at a plant in Wisconsin.

Peterson said one of the big reasons Malco made the decision to buy the plant and expand in DeWitt is that it was a place with "the right skills and the right people."

Of the employees the company has hired so far, all but a couple are former Vise-Grip workers, many with 10 or 20 years of experience. And in some cases, they are taking pay cuts to come back and work in DeWitt, Peterson said.

He said that for many of them, it's less about the money and more about wanting to see the plant open and successful again.

"There's a sense of pride there that's rare," Peterson said.

Vise-Grip pliers were invented in DeWitt in 1915 by Bill Petersen, and he started manufacturing them in the town after patenting the design in 1924. The DeWitt factory was the only place they were made until it closed.

In its heyday, the plant had more than 600 workers — more than the population of Dewitt — and American Tool at one point had a second plant in Beatrice employing more than 200 people.

By the time the DeWitt plant closed, it still had more than 300 employees, making it one of the largest private employers in southeast Nebraska.

Quandt said it's unlikely Malco will ever employ that many people in DeWitt — its main plant in Annandale, Minnesota, has 150 workers — but he does expect the plant to grow steadily, with plans to hire more people next year when the company launches its new product line.

"We're kind of playing it by ear as we grow the business and grow production down there," he said.

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On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


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