Article and Photo by Mary Carpenter
Issue: December 2022
When Plattsburgh Air Force Base was unexpectedly chosen for closure, chaos, a sense of mourning and deep anger suffused the community. Outside forces were about to bring a substantial change to the area. It was an uncertain time. But then a Canadian company was awarded a contract to build railroad cars and it needed a factory. A twist of fate, quick thinking and visionary ideas turned Plattsburgh from a long-time military town into a center of transportation manufacturing.
The year was 1994 and the North Country was reeling from the unexpected decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRACC) to close Plattsburgh Air Force Base. The future looked bleak, with projected job losses and the $180 million annual economic impact the Base provided
for the region. Then fate stepped in.
In September of 1994 Governor Mario Cuomo came to Plattsburgh and stood shoulder to shoulder with then Mayor Clyde Rabideau and Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas to announce a new beginning for the area. Canadian railcar manufacturer Bombardier had won a $41 million contract to build commuter trains for the Metro North Railroad and it needed a new facility. Plattsburgh would become its New York home.
The arrival of Bombardier created a long-term vision of attracting key producers of rail, road and eventually aerospace vehicles to the region, creating clusters of component makers and suppliers. Proximity to Quebec and its large number of transportation manufacturers would provide an especially
strong opportunity for the region over time.
For this issue of Strictly Business that focuses on the companies that have flocked to our area to provide the subsystems and services our transportation cluster needs, I visited Fuji SEMEC, a leading supplier with over 30 years of experience. The original Canadian parent company SEMEC Electromecanique Inc was founded in 1991 to specialize in the design, manufacture and refurbishing of electromechanical systems and sub-systems for the transit industry as well as manufacturing and wiring of operating panels for the elevator industry. By 2009 the demands of the business had grown and it was time for a new state-of-the-art headquarters and production facility in Boucherville, Quebec.
Two years later SEMEC looked to the U.S. for growth opportunities and opened a small production facility in the Town of Beekmantown While its administration, design and engineering functions remain in Boucherville, production is now concentrated in our area. Operations focus on the manufacturer of custom train door systems in electric or manual configurations. Available in stainless steel, painted steel and anodized aluminum they are fully-tested to ensure superior reliability. The company also offers complete and partial overhaul services, including re-engineering of obsolete parts with functional testing for door operators, switch panels, mechanical locks, and emergency release mechanisms.
In 2016 Fuji Electric Corp of America – a Japanese owned firm — stepped forward to acquire the majority of SEMEC shares and renamed the company Fuji SEMEC Inc.
At first, local growth was slow according to General Manager Alan LaPier, “In 2020, prior to the pandemic, there were 8-12 employees working here in what was then approximately 20,000 square feet. Then the work took off. Today, production occupies 50,000 square feet and there are 40 people hard at work at this location. We are in full growth mode and are looking for at least 10 more.”
Jennifer Harling, FS’s Director of Human Resources, emphasized, “We are proud of our workforce. Many of our people are veterans. Their skills are a good fit for the kind of work we do.” She also pointed to job opportunities for women, who make up more than ten percent of the current workforce, and those with special needs. “The way our work stations are set up offers those with mobility issues a comfortable work environment,” she said.
I asked Harling about the company’s hiring process. “We are looking for people who have good mechanical skills, attention to detail and an understanding that safety is critical. It is also helpful if applicants have some experience reading documents. An interview with us involves a short discussion and a demonstration of an assembly project. Then the interviewee is left alone to complete the task. If they complete it correctly, the interview goes forward.”
Fuji SEMEC is also interested in people who are easy going and have a positive attitude. “When we hire, we pick and choose who joins our family. Our people are not a number. We want individuals who will grow with us,“ she emphasized.
To explain how the company deals with the different policies and work rules of Canadian and U.S. workplaces Harling offered, “While each country has different laws, when it comes to time off, holidays, vacation time, sick time, and health care, we try to take the best practices from each country.”
During a break in our conversation, LaPier offered me a tour of the facility. As we walked from one end to the other, what I saw was impressive – clean, organized, with work stations grouped around tasks. LaPier’s pride in the company’s work and its people was evident as we walked and talked.
When Bombardier made the decision to locate in Plattsburgh, the idea that it would attract dozens of suppliers and service providers may have seemed unlikely, but now, nearly 30 years later, more than 40 companies have come to the area, ready and able to invest and grow. What an accomplishment!
20 Gateway Drive
Plattsburgh, NY 12901