Gerber Products Co. sees a switch from glass to plastic packaging for its popular infant and toddler foods as a way to please customers and grow revenues. And its plant in Fort Smith, Ark., sees the strategy as a way to prove its muster. The 900,000-square-foot Fort Smith plant will invest $65 million to incorporate new equipment for the plastic packaging, which Gerber introduced at a Fremont, Mich., plant in 2002. When the company announced it would expand the program to a second plant, Fort Smith began lobbying to be the site. "When discussions of another plastic line started, we were anxious to prove to our corporation that Fort Smith was the best choice," says Karen Flatley, plant manager. "We wanted to be part of Gerber's strategic growth initiative to offer high-quality baby food in a convenient plastic package." Gerber, based in Parsippany, N.J., is a unit of the Switzerland-based Novartis Group, a life-sciences company, and distributes its baby-care products in 80 countries. The Fort Smith expansion is planned to begin by the end of this year with the new packaging equipment coming online in 2005. Cutting New Teeth: Just as babies learn to transition from the cereals and purees that Fort Smith produces to the heartier meats, meat sticks and other toddler foods it makes, the plant's employees will learn to transition from current packaging machinery and methods to the new. Flatley says the switchover will involve extensive training for about 160 employees. "We are treating the training [with as much detail] as the installation of the actual equipment. We have already started to learn from the Fremont, Michigan, plant." Additionally, a training project manager and coordinator will be appointed. Flatley is viewing the revamp as an opportunity to add new skills to her 600-employee workforce, which she cites as a key component to the company's vote of confidence. "We have dedicated employees who are willing to work on improving our plant's overall costs along with a partnership with our union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers." No Place Like Home: In addition to her employees, Flatley credits local and state officials for convincing Gerber to invest in the expansion of the plant, which has been in Fort Smith since 1964. She says the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Department of Economic Development worked with the plant on the project for well over a year and put together an aggressive incentive package that caught the attention of Gerber officials. Fort Smith, population 80,300, calls itself the "Industrial Capital of Arkansas." It contains industrial parks and, according to the chamber of commerce, a 21-year supply of natural gas with "the lowest gas and electrical rates to be found in the nation." Locations profiles selected siting and facility strategies by manufacturing companies. Send submissions to Senior Editor John S. McClenahen at [email protected].