German bus builder picks town 'Out West' for shootout with US competition

Like a fine Dresden figurine, Gottlob Auwaerter has the classic features of a German farmer. Today, however, he is dressed in a cowboy hat and business suit.

Mr. Auwaerter is the patriarch of a West German family of bus builders who have made the novel decision to enter the US market and to locate their first American factory here in a Colorado farm town with a population of only 8,000.

The Auwaerters' bus company is called Neoplan, and it enjoys a good reputation in Europe as a small but extremely innovative company that builds buses of high quality. It has already won contracts to provide buses to the transit authorities in Atlanta; Milwaukee, Lynchburg, Tenn.; and St. Petersburg, Fla.

At the grand opening of Neoplan's new plant last month and through the day of official speeches, tours, a barbecue, and a rodeo, a "special feeling" between the German busmakers and the local people was obvious.

"Actually, we got a better offer from Pennsylvania but we liked the people here better," Bob Lee, Neoplan's executive vice-president, says.

"IT was obvious from the very first that there was a special feeling between the people of Lamar and the Auwaerters," says Colorado's lieutenant governor, Nancy Dick. She headed the local delegation that visited Neoplan in Germany almost a year ago, initiating the process that led to the location of its plant in this unlikely spot, a development observers call a real "Cinderella story."

It is the story of an unusual company and an unusual community which made contact despite the thousands of miles and the language barrier that separated them, which have come to respect and like each other, and are now working closely together for their mutual benefit.

For generations the Auwaerters were cartwrights. "My grandfather made carts for German farmers," explains Albrecht Auwaerter, Neoplan's president. In 1935, Gottlob Auwaerter began the company with six employees, building truck chassis in Stuttgart-Mohringen.

Since then the company has grown considerably. The Lamar plant is Neoplan's fifth, with others in Pilsting, a rural Bavarian town similar to Lamar, and in Kumasi, Ghana. The company has won a number of awards for its sleek-looking designs, which range from a minibus built to handle the handicapped, to an articulated bus that bends in the middle, to a giant, double-decker tour bus.

Despite its growth, Neoplan has remained a family business and kept its rural orientation. "Country people are self- made people," Mr. Lee says. "They know how to work." The company, which needs only one manager for every nine workers, relies heavily on the responsibility of its workers. For instance, its foremen are in charge of keeping track of and ordering the parts they use -- a job not usually on a foreman's list of duties.

The type of hard work the Auwaerters expect is obvious from the workload of the last few months. Starting in January with only eight American foremen, who were trained in Germany, the $13.5 million, 139,000-square-foot factory was built and more than 150 workers trained -- achieved by working six days a week plus overtime.

Over half the workers were previously unemployed and were recruited through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Furthermore, about half of them are women and more than 20 percent members of minority groups.

"They have really reached out to the poor people in this area," says Dr. William Leaverton, the vocational training instructor at Lamar Community College , who put together the training program for Neoplan. This program was paid for by state and federal money and was instrumental in persuading the company to locate here.

"They have good communication with their workers and are very receptive to any suggestions people have improve things," Dr. Leaverton observes. "One of Neoplan's real strengths is that they are not afraid to try something new."

"It's the best job I've had in a long time," says Dale Anderson, a CETA worker who has already worked his way up to foreman.

The Neoplan management has done a number of things to ingratiate itself with the community. It has hired local people as workers. It has told local businessmen that Neoplan will buy materials and supplies locally whenever possible. It set the pay scale in accordance with that prevailing in the area. It has consulted local leaders and officials at every turn. It brought in one of its luxurious buses and offered free rides around town to schoolchildren, people from a home for the elderly, and local officials.

All this seems like a miracle to many in Lamar. "I can hardly believe it has happened," says Clare Stafford, news director of the radio station here and one of the delegation that courted Neoplan.

For years, community leaders had been trying to revitalize and diversify their stagnating, agrarian economy. Yet these efforts were repeatedly disappointed.

In 1979, Lamar tried to coax Iowa Beef Producers to build a plant which would have employed 2,500. Because of concern over the availability of water, however , the company decided to locate in Kansas instead.

Next, the city focused its hopes on "the world's first artificial seawater shellfish farm," which Marine Nutritional Systems Inc. of Denver proposed setting up here. The project was scrapped.

These failures dashed hopes. "For a while, everyone seemed to give up," Mrs. Stafford recalls. The community snapped back, however. While continuing to look for new industry, it pressed ahead with a biogas project to produce methane from manure in a nearby feedlot, which will be burned in the local power system.

"The people here have a remarkable sense of community spirit and tenacity," says Lieutenant Governor Dick.

It was press reports of Lamar's recent difficulties and their resolution which caught the attention of Rolf Ruppenthal, Neoplan's US representative, who happens to live in Boulder, Colo. It was he who engineered the meeting betwe en the two parties.

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