The pandemic forced this plant to automate. Now Eldor has fewer workers than it planned for, but higher salaries

Gov. Glenn Youngkin wrapped his Monday trip to the Roanoke Valley on Monday afternoon with a tour of a Botetourt County factory that both commonwealth and plant officials said had made the most out of the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After signing a series of special education-related bills at Roanoke’s Round Hill Elementary School, Youngkin toured the Eldor Corp. manufacturing center in the Botetourt Center at Greenfield industrial park in Daleville.

Eldor, which began operations in Botetourt County almost five years ago, manufactures a variety of automotive ignition systems that are used around the world.

When the Botetourt County plant was first announced in 2016, the plan was to build a 250,000-square-foot facility and have at least 350 employees on the payroll within the first five years.

Youngkin’s visit came just days after the Virginia Economic Development Partnership approved a second extension for Eldor to meet all of the original targets tied to its receipt of a $3.2 million grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund.

According to Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, Eldor received an additional 16 months to meet all goals of the agreement this past week.

Initially, Eldor planned to have 350 employees earning an average wage of just under $38,000 by March 2021.

When Eldor made its extension request, the total workforce, according to documents from VEDP’s March board meeting, was 256.

While the employment benchmark has not been met, Eldor had exceeded its initial planned capital investment of $75 million in the plant by more than $1 million. And the average salary is also higher — the report said the estimate was more than $53,000 per employee.

Eldor executive Luca Forte, a son of company founder Pasquale Forte and the leader of the corporation’s supply chain and operation, said that the struggle to keep employees is a problem for companies around the world, and Eldor has turned its focus on retaining the workers it has now while it continues to build up the total workforce.

“We’re not that far away [from the goal], but it’s catching up,” he said.

Forte said it was the first time Eldor had hosted a governor since the plant’s opening in 2018, and he was pleased with the reaction of his guests.

“It’s so exciting to show our capabilities, our technology, our spaces and our people,” Forte said. “People for us are who we count on. To have the governor here — especially for our people here — is exciting. It’s something nice and something positive.”

Forte said Eldor tried to make the best out of the months when business slowed down by looking for ways to expand. And by the time the automotive industry began to recover, it had some of those plans.

“It was also a good time for our company to look into new businesses, such as electrification, electric cars, e-bikes. … So that’s where we have gone in the past three years,” Forte said. “The company has found other ways to go for the future and remain healthy.”

Austin said Eldor could become an example of why business incentive agreements could look different in the future. Right now, there is no way to alter agreements.

“That’s probably something we’ll entertain changing in our incentive packages,” Austin said. “Because they have become more automated, and hire higher-skilled workers, because of this, you make a bigger investment. Some of the changes require legislation, some don’t. But I think you will see it looked at.”

Austin added he had not been back to see Eldor’s operation in several years as well and left just as impressed as the rest of the visiting party.

“The tour went really well,” he said. “Anytime we can bring the governor to our region of the state to see our economic development … and the type of manufacturing that’s provided here at Eldor Corporation is just phenomenal.”

While some of the innovations were not in Eldor’s original plans, they did catch the eye of Youngkin, who has an engineering background.

“It was so exciting to see the work that Eldor is doing in Virginia, the world class operation that they have fostered, and their impact around the world,” Youngkin said in a statement following his visit.

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