Inside Saft’s high-tech Jacksonville factory

Source: Jacksonville Business Journal

Jacksonville was supposed to just be a manufacturing plant.

That's how it started, at least. But then Saft America came into Jacksonville and found the city so welcoming, it moved its headquarters here.

Thomas Alcide, CEO of Saft America, told the Business Journal that's when its presence in Jacksonville really took hold. The company opened its doors to the media on Thursday for the first time since coming here, giving a rare look into the state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing facility.

Saft, which produces high-end lithium ion batteries among other products, was looking at a few key criteria when it decided to make its move in 2011.

One of those was logistics. “You can ship from here out of the port, you can fly out, there's truck and rail,” Alcide said. “There's everything you could need from a logistics standpoint.”

Another factor was the workforce, especially important given the level of high-tech manufacturing that's necessary for these types of batteries.

Alcide said the company was looking for a dedicated, hard-working, loyal workforce.

“Who is that?” asked Alcide. “That's ex-military. Jacksonville is overwhelmed with ex-military people.”

He said the city has an abundant number of veterans with the skill sets the company needs. So far, the Jacksonville facility has put its money where its mouth is — 51 percent of its employees are veterans.

An ability to recruit new people to the workforce was also important, Alcide said. To do that, Saft had to move to a city that was appealing. Although the company prioritizes hiring locally, because of its specific skill set needs, it had to be able to recruit. “It's a great lure for people to come,” he said, citing the city's attractions and climate.

What really may have sealed the deal though was the city and those in it, Alcide said. From the very beginning, JAXUSA Partnership and the mayor's office were very upfront and honest with Saft, proving that not only would they help bring them to the city, they'd work with the company once it moved here. He said the support of JAXUSA president Jerry Mallot and his team was one of the biggest single reasons the company came to Jacksonville.

“We knew the relationship would be a benefit,” he said. So far, it has been.

Chris Kaniut, general manager of the plant, said the company has forged essential partnerships with organizations like the First Coast Manufacturers Association, Florida State College at Jacksonville and the University of North Florida. He said when the facility needed more local suppliers, FCMA helped locate ones in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, so they could have supplies on time.

“We have a world-class facility,” Kaniut said. “We do it with the help of other companies, and in turn we help other companies.”

Alcide said when Saft America was selecting from 16 potential sites — and after it narrowed it down to Jacksonville and a city in North Carolina — an ability to be involved in the community was appealing. Alcide said in other places, for a company to get involved in the community is not always encouraged. But in Jacksonville, not only is involvement encouraged, it's almost expected.

“Jacksonville wants their manufacturers to be involved,” Alcide said. “The approach here is they believe in manufacturing and believe in businesses… . We want to be part of the community long-term.”