LYONS — East Penn Manufacturing is marking a major milestone in the company’s history — its 75th anniversary. As it does, it is putting the focus on its employees.
East Penn’s 75th anniversary was officially in 2021, but due to COVID, a large, planned celebration to mark the day was canceled and rescheduled for this year, when more than 11,000 current and former employees and their families are expected to attend an open house Oct. 1 at the company’s Lyons location.
Founded in 1946 by DeLight Breidegam Jr. and his father DeLight Breidegam Sr., East Penn Manufacturing has grown from a one-room shop with five employees into the largest single-site lead battery manufacturer in the world, with more than 10,000 employees. Its main lead battery manufacturing plant spreads over 520 acres in Berks. The battery manufacturer is Berks County’s top employer, with 7,811 employees.
Mark Bricker, a 42-year employee at Deka, stands outside the smelter area where he works for the 75th anniversary of East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)
East Penn produces about 40 million batteries each year for automotive and transportation uses, which includes more than 515 battery types. Its stationary backup systems provide auxiliary battery power for businesses and communities, and it is expanding its lithium battery expertise and technology.
Some of the company’s products are still sold under the Deka brand, which is a hybrid name — “DE” for DeLight Breidegam and “KA” for Karl Gasche, who joined the company in 1947.
‘It takes people’
Chris Pruitt, president and CEO, said as the company approached its 75th anniversary, putting the focus on employees was an easy decision.
“It’s easy to buy machines and to build buildings,” he said. “But to make those machines turn into great products and to make those buildings sing every day — it takes people. And people are the core of why East Penn has been in business for 75 years. We are nothing without the people.”
East Penn has a set of guiding principles that includes its mission, cultural values and core beliefs. At the top of its core beliefs principle is people — that the “heart of the company will always be our people.”
And it has a reputation of being a good place to work — East Penn has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania every year since 2000.
A striking feature of the company is the length of time employees stay. At East Penn, about 25% of employees have been there 20 years or more. Three employees have more than 50 years, and 149 have worked there more than 40 years.
According to a 2020 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical manufacturing employee stays in a job for about five years.
East Penn also has a group called the Century Club, a group of employees whose age — added to their years of service — is 100 years or more. There are 500 members of that club, the company said.
Still feels excitement
One of the members is Mark Bricker, plant manager of East Penn’s secondary smelter who has just started his 42nd year with the company. He and his brother Jim Bricker, director of manufacturing, industrial division, were hired at the same time.
After he applied, Mark Bricker called every day to see if there was an opening. After two weeks of daily calls, Bricker was hired. He started as a QA inspector, then moved to the analytical lab, where he ultimately became chief analytical chemist.
“Over time I got to work on some projects that eventually evolved into East Penn being awarded some patents,” he said. “One of them is the acid recycling process, where we became the first battery manufacturing company in the world to extract sulfuric acid out of old batteries and reuse it in new batteries. We still do it today.”
From there he was invited to join the metals division team in his current position.
Bricker said he still gets excited about going to work every day.
“My mood is immediately racing on new things to try, new things to do,” he said. “I always felt I was a part of this company, it’s a family.”
Amado Gonzalez, assistant plant manager for building A1, stands in the Industrial Automotive Battery finishing line for the 75th anniversary of East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)
Amado Gonzalez has been with East Penn for 21 years. He is an assistant plant manager of Automotive Plant No. 1, a position he’s held for about eight months.
“I never thought about coming here and moving up into the spot where I am right now,” Gonzalez said. “Not even in a dream could I imagine it.”
Gonzalez moved to the U.S. from Mexico with his family when he was a teenager. After spending a number of years in the restaurant industry, he heard about East Penn and decided to apply.
He started as a machine operator and over time became a leader, then shift supervisor before being invited to interview for the assistant plant manager job.
Room to grow
Teri Ray has been with East Penn since 1993. She said East Penn offers room for advancement and to learn and grow.
Teri Ray, manufacturing learning and development team member, is on the Industrial Automotive Finishing Line for the 75th anniversary of East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)
“That’s one thing about this company, they will always help you achieve what you want to achieve,” she said.
Like Bricker, Ray wanted to work at East Penn, and while she didn’t call daily, she did call weekly to see if anything had opened up.
She started as a materials handler in one of the automotive plants, then drove a forklift for 10 years before moving to inventory control for 12 years. For the past three years she has been a manufacturing skills trainer.
“Through the ‘Deliteful Discussions’ management has with employees, it was noted that we need to have better training and consistent training,” she said. “The company took it to heart.”
Ray said she has always felt very secure in her job.
“I always felt like it could retire here,” she said. “I have also made some lifelong friends — some of my best friends.”
Perry Kramer grew up about three miles from the plant. His family has a history with East Penn that goes back 65 years — to his grandfather, At one point about 12 members of his family worked there.
Perry Kramer, director of technology research and development, outside the Breidegam Miksiewicz Innovation Center for the 75th anniversary of East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)
Kramer worked part time during high school and while in college, but never expected to work there full time.
Eighteen years later, he is the director of technology for research and development.
Kramer started in the stock room while still in school, then moved to the tech center lab, where he gained experience testing batteries. With his degree in chemistry and biology, he eventually moved into the analytical lab where battery components are tested. He was then asked if he would like to move to R&D.
Kramer said his tenure at East Penn has expanded his capabilities — both in his professional and personal life.
“Coming out of college I thought I was an expert in the science of things,” he said. “They’ve helped me realize I can be great at the science of people.”
Willing to adjust
While many employees have personal memories of DeLight Breidegam and their positive interactions with him, not all employees share those memories.
Gonzalez supervises about 300 East Penn employees. Every day he practices some of Breidegam’s methods to engage employees.
“I walk through the whole plant and I make sure I say, ‘Hi,’ to almost everyone that is available. I make sure they are OK and if they have any concerns,” he said, adding his efforts reflect his own experience.
Bricker said because the company is much bigger now, it’s important for the company to adjust and motivate employees to stay.
He said East Penn has launched a new effort with new employees to explain the company’s history and the operation before they are taken to the floor.
“We want to try to get them excited about where we were, where we are and how we want to change and make things better on a daily basis and have them be part of that,” he said.
A hardhat worn by DeLight Breidegam when he made his rounds of the manufacturing floors is on display for the 75th anniversary of East Penn Manufacturing in Lyons. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)
Driven by the impacts of COVID-19, East Penn’s workforce decreased by only 1.5% during 2020 and 2021. Now, the company is focused on recruiting talent. To support the effort, East Penn has revamped its recruitment website, amplified outreach on social media and through other means of advertising and holds or is present at almost weekly career fair events.
In addition, the company has adjusted its highly-regarded retirement savings and benefits plans to be even better, had a wage adjustment, created an Advanced Manufacturing Technology scholarship program and formed special committees that will continue to monitor and build on these retention and recruitment initiatives, the company said in an emailed response.
East Penn Manufacturing president and CEO Chris Pruitt, fourth from left, with employees at the company’s annual picnic at Dorney Park on Sept. 10, 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY EAST PENN MANUFACTURING)
ABOUT EAST PENN MANUFACTURING
In addition to the 7,811 employees in Berks County, East Penn Manufacturing has 2,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada. There are two manufacturing sites in Berks — Lyons for batteries and Kutztown for wire and cable; one manufacturing site in Corydon, Iowa; two finishing distribution centers in Oelwein, Iowa, and Temple, Texas; five distribution centers; and more than 80 warehouses.
East Penn Manufacturing is a privately-held, family-owned company. DeLight Breidegam’s daughter, Sally (Breidegam) Miksiewicz was named CEO of East Penn Manufacturing in 2000, but passed away in 2014. DeLight Breidegam died in 2015. Today, DeLight’s son Dan Breidegam is chairman, and three of Miksiewicz’s sons are involved in multiple roles at the company.