When Lori Brennan picked up the phone at Chesapeake Machine Co. on Monday night and the person on the line claimed to be calling from the White House, she wasn't sure what to think.
"I thought they wanted us to start a job because we do so much government work," said Brennan, 26, an administrative assistant.
But the call was the opening act in a days-long planning frenzy that culminated in President Barack Obama's tour of the East Baltimore manufacturing facility on Friday, while company employees listened to him unveil his job growth plans to the nation.
"I'm trying to take a few deep breaths," said Terry Sims, the company owner, a few hours after the visit. "It's been an amazing week since we got the first call."
Seemingly at random, the Obama administration chose Chesapeake Machine to serve as a backdrop for the president's announcement about his $33 billion jobs tax credit plan. Sims said he had heard that the White House staff had considered two other Baltimore-area businesses, but ultimately chose Chesapeake Machine. The White House press office didn't immediately respond to a question Friday night about how the company was chosen.
While about two dozen employees watched with cameras in hand, Sims and his operations manager gave the president a tour of Chesapeake Machine's 32,000-square-foot facility on Janney Street in Highlandtown. Chesapeake Machine builds custom industrial equipment, such as machinery for the steel mill at Sparrows Point, and recently attracted a customer in the solar energy industry, company officials said.
On the tour, the president wore blue protective glasses and greeted workers with "Hey guys," or "What's going on, guys."
Obama moments later spoke to a crowd of employees and city, state and Congressional dignitaries, including City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Obama said his job-creation ideas were the most cost-effective way to stimulate hiring.
"Now's the perfect time for this kind of incentive because the economy is growing but businesses are still hesitant to start hiring again," Obama said.
Despite laying off four workers last year, Chesapeake Machine, which relies increasingly on defense contracting projects, is looking to hire a machinist. And Obama's proposal to stimulate job growth by giving employers a $5,000 payroll tax credit for each new employee they hire couldn't come at a better time for Chesapeake Machine.
"I think that [credit] would help any small business who was on the fence about hiring someone," said Sims. "We really hope to hire four or five people this year. That tax credit would help. It's not going to be the deciding factor, but it'll help."
Chesapeake Machine is a blue-collar workplace, literally, set in an industrial section of East Baltimore. The workers wear blue-collared shirts and work all day at large steel machines that can fabricate pieces as small as screws or as large as industrial-strength steel containers.
Obama's plan would help all businesses who want to hire, not just small ones. Chesapeake Machine has nearly 40 employees, and nearly half have worked there for 10 years or more, according to Donna Smith, the company's officer manager. It's a family business with workers who, in many cases, have relatives who also work there, she said.
"This is blue collar," said Smith, sitting in the company's front office. Smith is the mother of Lori Brennan, who picked up the first White House call. "There are probably three or four people who have college degrees. The rest are high school graduates."
Joseph Sedlak, the company's operations manager, said that Chesapeake Machine several years ago was getting more work from commercial businesses. But as that market dried up, the company turned more to seeking work from the government, such as the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. They also handle custom manufacturing projects as sub-contractors for the defense industry.
"We've been forced to follow where the money is," Sedlak said. About two-thirds of the company's revenue now comes from government-related work. "Our customer base has completely changed. We've gone from building widgets and brackets to projects for defense."
Recently, the company started looking to hire a machinist. Just a few years ago when the economy was better, there weren't any machinists available to hire, and Chesapeake Machine started its own apprenticeship program.
"Before, to get someone to apply for a machinist position was unheard of," Sedlak said. "It's a dying trade. People didn't want to get into it."
Now, Sedlak has a stack of 60 resumes on his desk, and they keep coming in nearly every day.
Sun reporter Paul West contributed to this report.