LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) -- In Louisville on Wednesday, Ford Motor Company's top U.S. executive christened the rebuilt and reborn Louisville Assembly Plant, reaffirming the automaker's hiring plans and hopes for Escape sales.
"Louisville Assembly Plant is forever changed," proclaimed a beaming Mark Fields, Ford's President of The Americas.
With hundreds of first shift workers crammed into the plant's executive garage and thousands of Ford Escapes crammed into the Assembly Plant's parking lot, the automaker can barely contain itself.
"We're creating positions and bringing work back to America from places like Mexico and places like Japan," Fields told the standing room only crowd that gathered to celebrate the official launch of the small SUV in Louisville.
Once a third shift starts in September, the 1300 additional workers will bring the LAP payroll to 4200 hourly employees. By the end of this year, Ford said it is on pace to deliver more than half of the 12-thousand new jobs it promised in the United States by 2015.
Thanks to sacrifices by UAW workers and state tax incentives, the 57 year old Louisville Assembly Plant was pulled back from the chopping block with a $600 million investment by Ford. For a time, Ford had no vehicle production planned at the facility after production of the Explorer SUV moved to Chicago.
"We were on the edge here of losing this plant," acknowledged Gov. Steve Beshear (D) Kentucky.
"We worked hard at it," Beshear continued, "We got the incentive package passed at the state level. I think in the end, they love Louisville. They love the workforce they have here. They love the relationship between the government and them here."
Fields displayed a framed $1 bill given to him by United Auto Workers LAP Building Chairman Steve Stone during labor negotiations in 2007. The workforce at the plant had been reduced to only one shift as Explorer production waned.
Under the dollar is the inscription, "First return on the future investment in LAP UAW Local 862."
"So, I'm here to bring this back to show you, you are making a great return on Ford, the Louisville community and all the employees," Fields said to the cheering workers. "Steve, thank you."
"It's been a big relief for everybody," said Mike Pittman, an LAP electrician who has worked at the plant since July, 1970. "We were living on needles and pins for five or six years, worrying if we were going to get a product in Louisville."
The newly designed 2013 Ford Escape is now rolling off the line at a rate of one per minute - it's a rebirth for Ford in Louisville.
"It means I'm going to be able to retire and keep the other retirees with their benefits," said Paul Kilkelly, a Ford worker for 23 years. "And hopefully the next 30 to 40 years (will) be fine."
Fields said the newly designed Escape starts the wave of new products for Ford for the next few years.
The architect of Ford's "Way Forward" plan explained that 60 percent of customers are looking at either a mid-size vehicle or a small utility vehicle.
"We believe customers who drive other brands will give the Escape a second or third look," Field said.
2011 was the Escape's best for sales, 250,000 sold in the U.S. Louisville Assembly is capable of making 350,000 per year.
"Ultimately, the consumer decides the demand," Fields told WHAS11. "The great news is, when we add the third shift on, we have the capability of running three shifts, seven days a week here."
Fields was asked of any concern that the European economy's troubles threaten to undermine the U-S recovery and Escape sales.
"We look at the business environment literally every week," Fields said. "Obviously, there are issues in Europe, the economy is in pretty poor shape there."
"It's a real threat to us," said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D). "I don't think it's a mortal threat like it is in some of the countries in the Euro-zone."
"The great news is, here in the U.S., the economy is still growing," Fields said. "Our forecasts going forward is we continue to expect growth, moderate growth nonetheless, but the other thing is there's a lot of pent up demand out there. A lot of folks put on hold buying a new vehicle. The average age of a vehicle in the U.S. is the oldest it's ever been. It's over ten years old, it's almost 11 years old. So we think that the combination of that plus a great world class product like the Escape in a segment that's one of the largest segments in the U.S. bodes I think really well for the plant."
But if the economy does not support Escape sales, Ford has a Plan B in Louisville. LAP is the most adaptable in the world -- and can add a different vehicle to the line-up without shutdowns and layoffs.
"It is the most flexible plant in our entire Ford System to be able to produce up to six vehicles." Fields said. "But for right now, for the foreseeable future we're going to be producing the Escape."
The plant's workers also need to be flexible. The Escape launch merges 900 transfers from 37 other Ford facilities, 1200 people hired at a lower wage scale and 2,000 local Ford employees.
Jimmy Settles, the UAW Vice-President acknowledged that many people thought "it was impossible to have a successful launch with those new people here, but you have proved it, not only to the company and the union but to the world that you can do it."
"It's a great opportunity for that team to mold a brand new culture here, a culture of excellence as we bring these great products out," Fields said. "It's a great challenge for the team to have."
"The more we can focus on the quality of this product, I think we're going to grow our sales and all the men and women here in Louisville and across Ford are going to have great careers," Fields said.
"What happened here is really causing us to do negotiation much better with the company," Settles said. "We're able to prove what a true partnership is when labor and the company and the government all come together for one common goal."
"I feel like the future is really good as long as we keep our quality up and measure up to the standards Ford expects out of us," Pittman said. "I think we'll be just fine."
Ford estimates that Escape suppliers in the Louisville area have added more than 900 jobs and invested more than $56 million in the local facilities.
"We certainly will see more suppliers," Gov. Beshear said. "Because as they turn out more vehicles and now that they can switch and make other vehicles at a moment's notice because of their flexibility here at this plant, more suppliers will locate in Kentucky. We will have more jobs there. There is some activity I think with our other manufacturers that we're working on that hopefully may result in some things down the road."
"A little too early to tell at the moment," Beshear continued, "but the auto industry is growing now, it's on the rebound and so Kentucky is going to take advantage of it every way we can."