Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on the Aisin plants in Marion.
MARION - It started as a rumor back in the late '90s, that a major manufacturing firm was scouting out the area, deciding if Carbondale or Marion might be a possible location for a new plant. Glenn Clarida of Clarida & Ziegler Engineering had heard the rumor, too, but he knew there was something to it.
"I met the guy. He came into the office looking for information on Marion and Carbondale," Clarida said. "I thought he was a student, at first, but later found out that he was a front guy for Aisin."
The news spread quickly among business and government leaders in Williamson County and so did the excitement, but Clarida knew that nailing this one down might take years.
For large manufacturers such as Aisin, the site selection process is often long and arduous. And for economic developers such as REDCO, that process is intensely competitive as communities and states vie for the dollars and the jobs.
"We knew we had to move and move quickly," Clarida said. "There were nine of us -- business and government leaders -- who chartered a plane in March 2001, and flew to Indiana, where Aisin had a plant, determined to talk them into building one in Williamson County."
"We simply asked what their needs were and how we could serve those needs," he said. "We had plenty of land, but several in our group believed that they were looking for something more. So, we made our best offer, including building an industrial park for them.
"That's how it all began, with that plane ride to Indiana," Clarida said.
"It was a whirlwind of activity in just a few days," said Dutch Doelitzsch, chairman of REDCO, which stands for Regional Economic Development Corporation. "I remember the meeting that we had after leaving Indiana and arriving at Williamson County Airport. I asked all who were on the plane, plus the airport manager, to meet in the small conference room at the airport before going home. To meet Aisin's needs and build the new REDCO Industrial Park would take greater resources than REDCO or any of the individual entities had available.
"During that meeting, it was amazing to see inter-city and inter-governmental cooperation in its finest form as each of the entities pledged their support with ongoing financial, ownership, training, and other commitments to the project," Doelitzsch said. "That meeting was truly amazing. We were the group that came together to make it happen. We took the initiative.
"What you see at Aisin today wouldn't have happened had it not been for those community leaders working unselfishly together that day," Doelitzsch said.
That original agreement -- signed by representatives of REDCO and Aisin in 2001 -- was the culmination of years of effort on REDCO's part and much cooperation by political leaders, state agencies, college and university officials, and local businessmen and businesswomen, all determined to bring new industry to Southern Illinois.
REDCO secured a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs and a loan from the U.S. Department of Rural Development to cover the cost of the land and infrastructure. That $2 million loan was divided -- with portions based on population -- between the four largest communities in the county: Marion, Herrin, Carterville and Johnston City.
"It was a concerted and cooperative effort that the mayors of the four largest communities in Williamson County made 15 years ago. That's what made this work," said Marion Mayor Bob Butler. "REDCO worked with us to lobby Aisin and to build the industrial park here, and the four communities shared the initial $2 million debt.
"Of course Marion benefited greatly from the industrial park, since we were having tremendous business growth during that time," Butler said. "We needed to expand, but had no room. That first park and subsequent parks give Marion the room we need to grow."
The story of Aisin would only get better.
In less than a year after that initial agreement -- on July 1, 2002 -- Aisin started production at its first plant, Aisin Manufacturing of Illinois, with 200 employees. By the time ground was broken for Aisin's third facility in 2005, almost 500 worked in the Aisin complex.
Toshikazu Nagura, president of Aisin Holdings of America, told those gathered at the 2005 groundbreaking ceremony that there were other sites under consideration in 2001.
"However, after considering the conditions for investment, logistics and support from state and local government, we chose Williamson County," he said.
At that same ceremony, Doelitzsch proclaimed a "red-letter day for Williamson County and Southern Illinois" and praised the "excellent working relationship" established between Aisin, REDCO, the region and the state.
Today, Aisin has three plants in the REDCO Industrial Park, Aisin Manufacturing Illinois, Aisin Light Metals and Aisin Electronics Illinois.
Together, they employ 2,423 workers, more than any other company in Williamson County, including John A. Logan College, Pepsi Mid-America, Heartland Regional Medical Center and SIH's Herrin Hospital.
Studies show that Aisin's growth has caused employment in Marion to increase -- by 15 percent from 2000 to 2014 -- when the region was losing jobs. In that same 14-year span, overall employment in Southern Illinois dropped by 6 percent.
"Aisin's start-up and growth have also been facilitated by the tremendous support provided by the participating cities and by REDCO," said Glenn Edwards, executive vice president of AMI. "Southern Illinois University and John A. Logan College have also provided excellent educational support."
Both the university and the community college have provided assistance, including classes specifically designed to train Aisin employees.
"A lot of parties came together to make this happen," said Clarida. "It took courage and foresight to take that leap of faith. But I'm sure all involved would call it a good investment now."
"Securing jobs for our area benefits us all," said Doelitzsch.
"Aisin is growing, expanding its facilities and workforce, and producing more products to sell to more auto manufacturers," Butler said. "So, yes, the future for Aisin and for Williamson County looks really bright.
I think about it a lot, about just how far we have come, and that just 15 years ago, there was an empty field where all that industry is now."
Source of economic data for region: Illinois' Five-Year Delta Development Plan February 2016.
Aisin's corporate lineage
- Aisin Seiki, the great-grandparent company of the local Aisin complex, was established in 1965 by the merger of two automotive parts manufacturing companies, Aichi Kogyo and Shinkawa Kogyo. It is one of the largest automotive component manufacturers in the world, but product lines also include items for a number of other industries, including home appliances and industrial machinery.
- Aisin Seiki is headquartered in Kariya City, Japan. It is the parent company of the Aisin Group, a sprawling conglomerate of six core companies, a large network of subsidiaries and affiliates, and 187 specialized business "segments" around the world. The Aisin Group produces automobile parts from steel, aluminum and resin.
- The Aisin Group is headquartered in Kyodokon, Japan. It is the parent company of Aisin Holdings of America, which manages all of the Aisin Group's U.S. subsidiaries, including Williamson County's Aisin Electronics Illinois and Aisin Light Metals facilities, and Aisin USA Manufacturing, the parent company of the local Aisin Manufacturing Illinois facility.
Chanda Green, contributing writer
Sister cities, Marion and Kanie
Kanie, Japan, and Marion, Illinois, have a shared history beyond a relationship forged in the Aisin industrial complex. They are sister cities. So says the proclamation issued on March 26, 2010 by Marion Mayor Robert Butler.
Since then, Marion has hosted a group from Kanie five times, most recently just last month, and Kanie has welcomed visitors from Marion in 2010 and 2014.
Kanie is about an hour's drive from Kariya, where Aisin Seiki, the great-grandparent company of the local Aisin complex, is headquartered. Kanie is located in the southwest part of Japan.
"The Marion Chamber has enjoyed teaming up with the City of Marion to keep this sister-city partnership alive," said Dalus Ben Avi, director of the Marion Chamber of Commerce. "We also get a lot of help and guidance from a number of local businesses."
The sister-city program is administered by the city, the chamber and the school district.
The idea for an exchange program came from a Marion Carnegie Library staff member who wanted to develop a Japanese resource collection to aid Japanese families at the Aisin plants. The library obtained a state grant for the collection and contacted the local Japanese government center in New York about establishing an exchange program.
"We just wanted to make the relationship easier and to understand customs and arts and education," said Gail West, city administrator.
In 2008, the first group from Kanie Town - eight junior high students, the mayor and the school superintendent - visited Marion.
For more information on the sister-city program, contact the chamber office at (618) 997-6311.