Some of Big Horn County’s largest employers are reporting steady times in spite of a shaky national economy. As a result, employment has been steady for many workers in the area and small communities aren’t experiencing the high unemployment found in other parts of the country.
The AMCOL International plant in Lovell employs around 120 employees at its three divisions and around 1,400 worldwide.
“Most of our employees working in our Lovell plants live in the Lovell, Cowley, Byron area, but we do have some travel from Powell and have had some travel from Greybull and even Cody,” said plant manager Steve Wilkerson.
“We have people here who have been with us a long time, including Leroy Fink, who has been here since we started this plant in around 1962. He actually helped build the American Colloid plant and then went to work in it and is still here to this day.”
Wilkerson said he attributes the longevity of the company’s workforce to the fact that AMCOL is a good company to work for.
“They care about their employees and a lot of people stay because of that,” said Wilkerson. “For that reason, a lot of us have been here a long time.”
AMCOL International is a worldwide company with plants on every continent in the world, said Wilkerson. It is a specialty minerals group, producing a wide range of products from kitty litter to beauty products to drilling products. The Lovell operation produces mostly bentonite products.
“We make products that are used in the agriculture industry, products used in the veterinary industry, all using bentonite,” said Wilkerson. “Wyoming is probably the biggest producer of bentonite products in the world. We have bentonite mines in China and India, Europe and literally all over the world, but the highest quality bentonite is right here in Wyoming. That is known worldwide and literally companies request that their bentonite come from Wyoming.”
Wilkerson said that because of the diversity of products produced by the Lovell plants, it has managed to stay ahead of the curve in spite of the weak national economy.
“We like to say that bentonite is a product of 1,001 uses,” said Wilkerson. “Literally here in Lovell we produce probably close to a hundred different products. Even in a bad economy we do not slow down, we find other opportunities and go that direction. If the economy fell apart, would we go with it? No, I don’t think so. We would just continue to keep on going because we are so diverse.”
Dale Nuttall, mine superintendent for Wyo-Ben, reports a similar experience at Wyo-Ben, a company also specializing in bentonite products. The company employs about 100 employees at its three plants, which are located in Lovell, Greybull and Lucern. He said the company produces the usual bentonite products like pet litter, oil drilling products and environmental products like liners for landfill.
“Business is steady, we’re at capacity most of the time,” said Nuttall. “Any slowdowns have been barely noticeable. The bentonite business has been good for the Big Horn Basin. It employs a lot of people. It would hurt several communities around here if our industry were to go away for some reason or another. A lot of people work for us from the Lovell and Greybull area and now from the Thermopolis and Worland areas, too.”
Nuttall said he doesn’t see anything in the future that might hurt the industry.
“I think the industry is stable for the foreseeable future,” said Nuttall. “We’re hoping that everything will continue steady as it has been and there is no reason to believe that it won’t.”
Western Sugar Cooperative
The Western Sugar Cooperative Lovell factory operation employs about 100 workers, said plant manager Ray Bode. Approximately 40 are year-round employees. The balance are employees who work only during the campaign, which is the processing season that begins in September and ends usually in mid-February. More than half of the employees return to work in the plant year after year, said Bode.
Bode said the near record crop of 480,000 tons of beets yielded by local farmers this year keeps the factory humming with activity 24/7 throughout the campaign, which will end sometime next week.
“This year the beets were stored very well, which makes the processing much easier,” said Bode. “The sugar production and byproduct production are very good. The beets freeze anyway. It’s not the freezing that causes problems, it’s the freezing and thawing. We didn’t have much of that this year, so the beets have been keep in a good condition for processing.”
Bode expects the campaign to end the second week in February.
North Big Horn Hospital
NBHH employees about 240 individuals in a variety of positions, from housekeeping to skilled medical positions. The hospital district is one of the biggest employers in the county, said CEO Rick Schroeder.
Schroeder said a feasibility study for expansion of the facility is under review by the district’s board of directors. Schroeder’s vision of the expansion and remodel of the facility is designed to provide even better service to the community.
“We don’t know where it’s going to take us yet, but we’ll know more after the board takes a look at the study,” said Schroeder.
In the past year, the hospital has purchased a new CT scanner and ordered a new ambulance. It also began a community program called “hometown healthy living” that allows individuals to cost-effectively manage important information about their own health through low cost blood tests. The hospital has expanded its wellness programs both for employees and community members.
The finances of the district have improved considerably over the years, due in part to improved accounting methods that insure coding is efficient for the billing that goes to the numerous payers like Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies.
“As part of our critical access designation, we receive money through the community through property taxes,” said Schroeder. “We really count on that and very much appreciate the money from mill levies, since we use that money to buy things like new ambulances and improved equipment. We are very fiscally minded when we make these purchases. We try our best, in every decision we make, to use this money wisely.
“Our business is truly a unique and special privilege because we are caring for the lives of others in our community, so we do the best that we can and take that very seriously,” said Schroeder.
By Patti Carpenter