GKN Thrives in Alabama

British-based GKN Aerospace has been growing in Alabama since 1985. Commitment to homegrown worker training supported the recent expansion at a second plant in Tallassee.

The massive autoclave waits to play its part in production at GKN Aerospace in Tallassee, where workers in two plants create aircraft parts including fuel tanks, engine fans and more. Photos by Cary Norton

Andy Scroggins was born and raised in Tallassee, a town of just under 5,000 people between Montgomery and Auburn. Jeff Miller is from the Midwest and had barely heard of Tallassee when he arrived just over a year ago.

But they now both find themselves in the town that’s part of both Elmore and Tallapoosa counties in leadership roles at plants owned by British-based GKN Aerospace — Scroggins as general manager of one plant and Miller as director of operations just a couple of miles down the road at GKN’s larger plant.

“People are surprised when they find out what we do here,” Scroggins says. “They just don’t think about a plant doing what we do being in Tallassee.”

GKN’s two Tallassee plants are among the more than 50 the company has worldwide, mostly in the United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands and Sweden. The firm is among the world’s leading aerospace suppliers, developing systems, components and technologies for all types of aircraft, from military and commercial planes and helicopters to drones.

Scroggins’ plant, which employs about 50 people but has plans to double in size over the next two years, builds fuel tanks, but “the really cool part” he says, is in the details. “The interesting thing about the fuel tanks we make is that they are actually designed to save lives.”

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GKN’s fuel systems plant makes three types of fuel tanks, or bladders, for aircraft: a basic tank that holds fuel and goes into drones and other aircraft; a crash-worthy tank that holds its shape and doesn’t burst into flames after a low-altitude crash; and a self-sealing tank, which can take a 50-caliber gunshot and continue flying.

“It has a gum-rubber fill inside and will essentially fill itself back up enough that it can get to safety and the aircraft not run out of fuel,” Scroggins says of the self-sealing tank. “That’s going to go into military aircraft going into places where they might get shot at.”

The crash-worthy tank has been mandated by the federal government for all new aircraft since the early ’90s, Scroggins says, and “there’s no telling how many lives this change has saved.”

Cross section of a completed Honda Jet fuselage.

“Since they implemented this, there have only been a few recorded instances of a bladder leaking fuel and catching fire,” he says.

Clients at GKN’s fuel systems plant include General Atomics, which makes drones; Bell and Sikorsky Aircraft, which make helicopters, and the U.S. Navy. And there’s more to come.

“We’re transferring over some product lines from the UK, and our people count will double in the next two years,” Scroggins says. “Our site is going to expand from 20,000 square feet to a little over 50,000 square feet.”

GKN Aerospace’s larger plant located in Tallassee in 1985. It comprises about 380,000 square feet, more than 800 employees and about $212 million annually in revenue, Miller says. It provides structural components and assemblies to about a dozen customers worldwide, including Bell, Sikorsky, HondaJet and Airbus.

One of the plant’s larger customers is GE Aviation.

Tenesha Mott, Myiesha Milner and Rashaundra Simmons laying up a Sikorsky canopy.

“We make the containment cases for the fan in the engines for the 777 and 767 aircraft, which keeps them from penetrating into the fuselage,” Miller says. “That’s representative of the kind of things we do.”

Other customers include Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky, making “a host of components” for the Black Hawk helicopter, he says.

But GKN’s plants in Tallassee are about more than the customers. They are about their employees and the community, too. The fuel systems plant has been operating since 2014, and the composite plant has been there more than 30 years.

“I’ve been in a lot of places doing different things,” says Miller, who has worked in the aerospace industry for 35 years. “One thing that drew me to Tallassee was the employees’ willingness and drive to do better and to succeed and the willingness to change. There’s a great willingness to work and to change and to accept different things.”

Plants in smaller towns like Tallassee are often much more a part of the community than those in other locations, Miller says. Most of his workforce at both plants come from Tallassee and the surrounding areas, including Shorter and Opelika.

“If we invest in the community and the workforce, it’s what keeps us here,” Miller says.

Andy Scroggins explains part of the fuel tank process.

To that end, GKN’s composite plant has started Tallassee University, a two-week training program for employees in conjunction with the Alabama Community College System.

“Because of the technical aspects of the aerospace industry, there are certain specific skill sets, so there was a gap between how some of the current workforce and some of the new people who came in did their jobs,” Miller says. “We cleaned out a room and set up a classroom environment for training classes for all new hires. We’re also running some existing employees through some things that we train.”

Training opportunities like that help GKN Aerospace recruit in the community and local high schools. “Not everybody goes off to college,” Miller says. “Some elect to get an associate’s degree and some go straight to work. We can plant the seed of what we do and what we have to offer.”

GKN Aerospace worldwide instills the “Power of 5” among its 18,000 employees, says Wesley Bates, media and communications manager for the company. That includes promoting a work culture that’s open and honest, innovative, promotes a culture of ownership among its employees and is safe.

The Tallassee plants are known for embracing this culture, with the fuel systems location ranking number one company-wide in job satisfaction and happiness.

“We do a few innovative things for our employees to remain involved and engaged,” Scroggins says. “We don’t hire people on the operating floor unless they’re vetted by the team they’re going to be working with, for instance.”

Both GKN Aerospace locations consider themselves an integral part of the Tallassee community, which is important to Scroggins, a native son. His plant has led a backpack drive for local schools, handed out cookies and other treats to the fire and police departments and delivered valentines to a local nursing home, among other things.

“We consider ourselves the best at what we do, but we’re not just a company that builds products,” Scroggins says. “We’re a company that changes things and a company that people want to come to and like working for.”

Alec Harvey and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Norton in Birmingham.

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