Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories exploring Chatham’s robust manufacturing backbone, particularly little-known operations with major impacts on national and …
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Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories exploring Chatham’s robust manufacturing backbone, particularly little-known operations with major impacts on national and global economies.
PITTSBORO — 3M is one of the world’s most prolific manufacturers, with tens of thousands of diverse products.
But its plant in Chatham County sticks to the company’s roots — mining for raw materials.
The 95,000 square-foot facility just south of Pittsboro is one of 3M’s three North Carolina operations. Each has distinctly different functions: a Charlotte plant makes “advanced dissolved gas control” membranes, and a Monroe plant manufactures breathing apparatuses for emergency medical uses.
“3M makes approximately 60,000 different products,” said Blake Arnett, plant director at 3M’s Pittsboro site. “It’s been said that you can’t go anywhere in the civilized world for more than five minutes without touching one of our products.”
But the Pittsboro location stays true to the company’s nearly 120-year-old mission. The facility is one of the “world’s leading suppliers” of roofing granules to be used in the asphalt shingle industry, according to Arnett.
“I don’t know if you know what 3M stands for,” he said, “but it stands for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. I joke around with the executives when they come to the plant. I tell them without the company’s industrial minerals products division they’d have to change their name to 2M, and that’s not going to go over very well in the marketplace.”
Of 3M’s mining facilities around the country, Pittsboro is the youngest at just 19 years, but its product supplies buyers across the eastern United States. Between 3M’s three North Carolina locations, the company spends “approximately $2.3 million in state and local taxes,” Arnett said, and “we export approximately $175 million out of the state.”
And demand is only increasing. As the nation’s biggest construction boom in 15 years barrels on, 3M is working around the clock to keep buyers happy.
“Nobody forecasted this,” Arnett said. “Especially with the pandemic, nobody forecasted what’s occurring in the construction business and what’s happening with houses. You’ve probably noticed what’s happened with the value of homes going up through the roof, no pun intended. And so that’s really driving the construction business and also the roofing business as well.”
To meet demand, 3M’s 75 Pittsboro employees are working across three shifts. The process begins with 3M’s quarry partner, Luck Stone, a “family-owned and operated producer of crushed stone, sand and gravel,” according to the company’s website.
“We own the land,” Arnett said, “but they mine that for us — do the blasting and that sort of stuff. And then with conveyor systems they’ll bring the rock over to our facility.”
Luck Stone delivers blocks of Andesite rock about four inches in diameter to be crushed and screened for quality. After whittling the stone down to optimal size — about one-sixteenth of an inch around — 3M moves the granules to another building on site for the coloring process, where Arnett says the company really sets itself apart from its competition.
“We add coloring to it and that’s where you get the black and the red and the blues and white and stuff like that,” he said. “And you know that color has got to stay on for 20, 30 years on your roof. And so that’s really where the 3M technology comes into place — it’s in that coloring process.”
Once dyed, the stone is placed in a kiln to set. The finished product is then placed in one of 100 shipping silos in preparation for delivery.
“We’re just running wide open right now,” Arnett said.
For all its productivity, though, the site maintains a quiet profile. Of the 2,200 acres 3M owns, only 450 are involved in the mining process. “The other 1,700 is untouched,” Arnett said — a deliberate choice to avoid disturbing neighbors.
“That was done by design to insulate neighbors and to be good neighbors within the community,” he said. “You can drive by and you might see some signs, but you don’t really see what’s going on back here.”
The company’s discreet presence has some drawbacks, though. The site needs more workers, but few potential employees know the facility exists.
“People don’t even know we’re back here,” Arnett said. “The goal was not to be a bad neighbor, to be a good neighbor. But on the other hand, a lot of people don’t realize that we have jobs out here, that they have one of the best employers probably in the county right in their backyard.”
The site currently has six job openings that each pay more than $20 per hour. 3M’s starting wages are among the highest in Chatham County, but Arnett can’t find enough recruits.
“We pay very well; we have very good benefits,” he said. “And we are considered one of the best companies on the Fortune 500 list to work for, but we’re struggling.”
To engage more with the community, Arnett has overseen about $10,000 in annual, charitable donations to a variety of causes. The company has partnered with such organizations as the Salvation Army, held food drives, donated school supplies and volunteered construction services in low-income areas.
“But we have not been out in the community in the last year and a half, two years,” Arnett said. “And that’s been really difficult.”
He looks forward to rebooting the company’s philanthropic efforts as the pandemic recedes and circumstances allow, and hopes more Chatham residents will reach out to learn about opportunities at the plant. The quarry can sustain mining operations for another 100 to 150 years — “long after any of us are around,” Arnett said, laughing. “... That’s pretty good job security.”
“3M started with mining,” he said, “and it’ll end with mining.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.