Defense cuts prompt Hercules to bite bullet

September 11, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

ROCKET CENTER, W.Va. -- Like most other defense contractors, the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory, a sprawling rocket fuel complex tucked between towering mountain peaks in the northeastern part of the state, has felt the pinch of a declining Pentagon budget.

Reduced orders for such weapons systems as the Maverick missile -- an anti-tank rocket launched from fighter planes -- has taken its toll at this federal government-owned facility operated by Hercules Inc.

With sales sliding and its facilities operating at about only 30 percent of capacity, Hercules executives concluded that it was time to bite the bullet and consolidate operations here with those in McGregor, Texas. The move follows a nationwide trend within the defense industry.

It's one of the rare situations where Maryland will benefit from a meshing of defense plants. John F. Hixon, head of the Hercules complex here, said the consolidation will add between 200 and 300 jobs at ABL, as the laboratory is commonly called.

He said the company is asking 75 key people to make the move from McGregor, but he was not certain how many will be coming. The other jobs, he said, will be filled by recalling laid off workers and new hires.

A few people already have made the shift, but the consolidation is not expected to be completed until sometime next year.

Mr. Hixon said ABL had several advantages over its sister plant in Texas. They included the capacity to produce a wider variety of solid rocket fuels and the ability to load warheads with plastic explosives.

Although the labor costs are about the same, Mr. Hixon said ABL had the advantage of being a more modern facility with a larger technical staff.

Since plans for the consolidation of Rocket Center and McGregor operations were first announced in June, Hercules has signed a letter of intent to sell its aerospace business, including the two rocket engine operations, to Alliant Techsystems Inc. of Hopkins, Minn.

Donald W. Short, vice president of finance for Hercules Aerospace Co., the unit of Hercules Inc., that includes the ABL operations, said the sale will not affect the current consolidation.

ABL opened in the early days of World War II. At that time it manufactured .50-caliber machine gun ammunition. It went through a major change in 1944 when the complex was turned over to George Washington University for rocket research.

Ownership was transferred to the Navy in 1946, and Hercules took over its operation.

Over the years, the lab has been involved in the production of thousands of rockets including the Sparrow air-to-air missiles credited with shooting down the first Iraqi plane during the Persian Gulf war.

"Sparrow was a $60 million contract," said Mr. Hixon. "It was not our biggest, but it was the bread and butter of the operations at this plant for many years."

While the bulk of ABL's production has been geared to military contracts, it was also called upon to give a boost to the nation's fledging space program in the late 1950s. It developed components for both the Vanguard and Scout satellite launching rockets.

Like other defense contractors, ABL is seeking also to stabilize its business base by diversifying into new lines of business.

vTC One of its more interesting projects involves a program that could boost the power and the batting averages of the office softball team.

Mr. Hixon explained that the company is teamed with Minuzo, a Japanese manufacturer of sporting equipment, to produce an improved aluminum alloy, precision-made softball bat that will cost about $175.

It also is working on a fuel tank that will fit into cars powered by natural gas and is working with an inventor and West Virginia University on the development of a new rotary engine that could be used for lawn mowers and to power military pumps and compressors.

"It's very interesting technology," Mr. Hixon said of the engine. "I would give it a zero to 5 percent chance of working. But we don't have any money invested in it, and if it works there's the potential for a very large market."

ABL is one of this region's largest employers, drawing its 570 workers from Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. As recently as 1991, it had about 900 workers.

Mr. Hixon said the consolidation will make ABL more competitive in vying for new business needed to maintain its employment base and to grow.

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