Navistar Defense gets to work in Madison Heights

Army supplier brings economic growth to city while keeping troops safe

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published March 25, 2011


MADISON HEIGHTS — As the ribbon was cut at Navistar Defense March 21, ushering in a new start for the major military contractor, attendees’ thoughts were on more than just the economic impact the company would bring.

“People of this great country are always divided when it comes to policy,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. “We debate whether we should’ve gone to Iraq; we debate whether we should be in Afghanistan, and how long; we debate what’s going on in Libya.

“But what there’s no debate about — where people are united — is they want us to give the men and women in uniform the very best equipment to accomplish their mission and come home safely,” he said. “In that, there is great unity.”

The military branch of the Warrenville, Ill.-based commercial trucking company, Navistar Defense makes a variety of products including MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which use a special V-shaped hull, among other more classified technologies, to deflect roadside bomb blasts away from troops.

Built on heavily modified commercial truck platforms, each vehicle can last 15 to 20 years, though upgrades are constant as technology improves and the demands of the battlefield change. Currently, Navistar Defense has over 30,000 such vehicles deployed in 26 countries that serve a variety of functions, including general troop transport, field ambulance, water tanker, fuel truck, wrecker and more.

Navistar can also produce north of 100,000 commercial vehicles a year, resources which could be leveraged to produce military vehicles quickly if needed. This made the company an enticing prospect to the U.S. military.

“We were able to not only deliver a great product, but to deliver it quickly,” said Navistar Defense spokesperson Elissa Koc.

Navistar Defense moved to Madison Heights when it outgrew its capacity in Sterling Heights, where it’d been since 2009. Now its engineers will work out of the 90,550-square-foot facility at 1675 E. Whitcomb, previously occupied by tooling company Valenite from 2004 to 2010. The site is close to another of Navistar’s customers, the U.S. Army TACOM in Warren.

More than 180 employees work at the location, with growth expected to reach 250. In February, Madison Heights City Council awarded Navistar Defense a three-year tax abatement on over $1 million in new personal property at the facility, including servers, computers, furniture, fixtures and machinery, on the condition the company create at least 40 jobs over the course of two years.

Navistar Defense also received a Michigan Economic Growth Authority (MEGA) Tax Retention Credit from the state, on the terms it creates at least 87 jobs over seven years. Progress has already been made, at 56 new hires and counting.

“We’re chugging along pretty quickly,” Koc said. “This area is very well-known for automotive engineering talent. Getting the best people on our team is step one in providing the best possible product, and in our business, providing the best product means saving lives.”

Archie Massicotte, Navistar Defense president, said keeping the troops safe is a responsibility the company takes very seriously, and one that makes for some satisfying moments.

“Every day, we’re looking at new technology, new ways to prevent the bad guys from hitting our trucks and blowing up our soldiers, and we’ve so far been very, very successful,” Massicotte said. “Soldiers that have been hit in vehicles leave voice mails. They think about that for a minute. They go out, they’re on a mission, truck gets hit, they walk away. That soldier went back to the barracks or tent or whatever it may be, and he reflected on that day, and we’re thankful … to get the call to thank us for what we did.”

And Madison Heights, in turn, is thankful to have Navistar Defense in town.

“This is the new high-tech business in town; this is not your run-of-the-mill company,” said Linda Williams, the city’s economic development coordinator. “This is a major win for Madison Heights, not only in the investment dollars they’re bringing in and the vacant building they’re filling, but the economic impact will be great by the number of employees they’ll bring who’ll hopefully take advantage of everything Madison Heights has to offer.”

And there’s another way Navistar Defense factors into the city’s big picture. Williams is arranging for other industrial companies in Madison Heights that have overlap in the defense sector, such as DRS and Radian Precision, to meet with Navistar’s senior management and see if there’s any deal-making synergy to be had.

“We’re planning it for mid-April or so, and it’s been very well-received by our existing companies,” Williams said. “Hopefully, we can build on this defense zone or defense corridor. We want to build on that.”