Four-Day Factor of Production

Kimberly Blanton
The Boston Globe (Page: A1 Section: Metro/Region)
June 14, 2004

Gillette Co.'s planning for the Democratic National Convention is all about attention to detail lots of detail. The company is assisting employees desperate to avoid a crushing commute during convention week. Production will slow at the South Boston razor and blade plant in anticipation of a lean workforce. Truck drivers hauling Gillette products may have to work the night shift. And the cafeteria at World Shaving Headquarters will be stocked in advance with food and nonperishables to make it through the week. "We don't know what to expect," said Michael Cowhig, president of global technical and manufacturing operations. "So the thing that makes me feel good is that we're flexible enough to be able to handle whatever happens during those four days. We've been doing this for 100 years."

Gillette is honing its multilayered battle plan for the week of July 26, when police will close major roads into Boston and effectively shut down the city each afternoon during the four-day convention. The post-Sept. 11 security precaution creates logistical challenges for every Boston business, but they will be tremendous for the city's largest manufacturer.

Gillette's goal is simple: preventing disruption to customers, suppliers, and employees in 200 countries for whom the convention is no more than a 30-second news spot. How the company prepares for expected disruptions and unexpected ones is a window into what every Boston employer faces during the convention. Even the best-laid plans can't anticipate every convention-week scenario. Worst cases include gridlock on the roads or a terrorist attack that paralyzes Boston.

A plant shutdown for any reason could create a "bullwhip effect" in which a manufacturing disruption creates larger and larger ripples through Gillette's chain of suppliers and distributors, said Yossi Sheffi, director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"They can't send everybody home," Sheffi said. "They have to protect their customers and some of the customers are not you and me. They're people like Wal-Mart," he said. "The main thing that bedevils Gillette now is the uncertainty."

Gillette spokesman Eric Kraus calls a plant shutdown "highly unlikely." If one did occur, it would be insignificant to a company with more than 100 days of inventory of finished products worldwide, said analyst Bill Chappell of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. "Product is not an issue," Kraus said, "both making it and ensuring it gets to retail stores."

Since Gillette will slow production that week, MIT's Sheffi said, it will inevitably incur costs, and Chappell estimated potential costs from an irregular week, such as overtime or added shipping charges, could be up to $3 million. "We don't expect any significant costs associated with the DNC," Kraus said. In 2003, Gillette posted profits of $1.39 billion on revenue of $9.25 billion.

Commuters to Gillette are bracing for the worst. Roxanne Lamb's commute is already difficult. An administrative assistant employed by Gillette's food-service contractor, she leaves Peabody about 5:45 a.m., drives to the Wonderland subway stop, and takes the Blue Line to the Green Line. She arrives at the Prudential Center about 7 a.m. A majority of Gillette's headquarters staff there also take mass transit. Lamb expects "a three-hour crush" to get to work before 8 a.m. during convention week.

"This is the reason I am seeking an outside alternative," she said, leaving work one recent evening. She tried to find a Boston hotel room they're unavailable or too expensive. Now she's looking for a room to rent, and her boss is also trying to help.

Gillette management told its 1,400 Prudential Center workers in a recent memo the office will close one hour early that week, at 3:30 p.m., which barely precedes road closings starting at 4 p.m. Headquarters employees are also encouraged to telecommute or take vacation. Those living in western or northern suburbs can work at company offices in Needham or its Andover plant, where it makes shaving gels and deodorants. All week, Gillette will update traffic reports for employees on its internal website.

The night the convention kicks off, and through the week, Gillette executives will assess how the day went and adjust. "We are trying to minimize the disruption to our employees," said Kraus.

Shift times will not change for the factory's 1,250 workers (another 650 work in the factory's offices). But Gillette will pay overtime to production workers, if needed, to ensure manpower to keep the plant running. The company also directed its food-service contractor to stock extra food in its spacious cafeteria for workers who may prefer its wall-mounted televisions to parking-lot conditions along their drive home.

At the South Boston plant, workers dodge unmanned, yellow vehicles with names like Silver Brownie, King C. Gillette, Excel scooting around the sprawling factory. They carry steel, plastic lubrication tubes, and palettes of multicolored shaver parts to and from an automated warehouse.

While the plant is recognized for its sophisticated technology, highly skilled employees are critical to production. With fewer workers expected to be on hand during the convention, output at Boston's largest manufacturing plant will run below its average daily rate of 2.7 million razor blades and 274,000 shavers a day. Plastic-molding equipment will make Mach3 and Venus razor handles but fewer than in a normal July week. Raw steel will be forged into blades just not as many.

"We've looked at it as closely as we can, given the information at hand, and we've made a number of changes which minimize the operations we'll be running that week," Cowhig said. "Those that will be running, we'll have enough flexibility and folks on call," he said, "and we'll manage whatever disruption."

Gillette is encouraging hourly workers to take vacations that week, he said. Shirley Walsh, who works the 6 a.m.-6 p.m. shift stamping logos on Mach3 handles, said that message was clear in a recent meeting. Her supervisor told workers to "be on time" during the convention. "If you don't think you can make it in, then use your vacation," said the supervisor, according to Walsh.

She expects the worst traffic on her commute home, but she isn't keen to use precious time off for a political event. "Why can't they do it out in the boondocks? It's in the center of town where it affects everybody," she said.

Gillette's plan is based on contingencies. If afternoon traffic delays workers scheduled to start at 2 p.m. or 6 p.m., others would remain at their posts, earning overtime, until the replacements arrive. If someone is on vacation or can't make it in, Gillette can tap employees on call to work overtime. "There are a million" scenarios, said James Hutton, director of Gillette security and one-time diplomaticsecurity agent for the US State Department. Hutton, who lives in Scituate, booked a hotel room downtown that week so he can get to Gillette 24 hours a day.

The company's warehouse in the old Fort Devens Army base in Ayer, where finished products are readied for shipment, has enough stock for a 24-hour cycle, Gillette said. A constant stream of raw material into South Boston and an uninterrupted supply of razors and blades out to Fort Devens are needed to maintain product flow to Gillette's domestic and global customers.

If dire traffic predictions prove true, the company can expect severe delays. On an average day, the plant receives 25 deliveries of raw materials and overnight packages, and it ships up to a dozen truckloads of finished product to Fort Devens. A typical route from South Boston to Fort Devens is Interstate 93 to the Massachusetts Turnpike. I-93 will be closed for the convention, forcing trucks to travel city streets. If streets are impassable, the company said, it could park trucks in lots behind the South Boston plant and schedule deliveries during early-morning hours, after the convention ends and before rush hour begins. Gillette is talking with its trucking contractors about how to manage the week.

Cowhig said South Boston's warehouse has enough materials and parts in inventory to buffer short-term disruptions, and production can be made up if necessary. "The Democratic National Convention, to us, is no different than a snowstorm or a blizzard for four days or any other temporary disruption," he said. Martin Farrell expects road closings to create gridlock just as he makes his regular afternoon haul of Gillette products to the airport. Seat squeaking each time his 65-foot-rig hits a bump, the safety-conscious driver imagined "a spike in road rage" due to convention traffic as he rounded a rotary. The rotary connects Route 1 to Route 60, which he takes to Route 1A into the airport. Route 1 traffic will be diverted by police to Route 60 when the southbound Tobin Bridge closes during the convention. Farrell heard the 40-minute trip could take four hours longer to get back. "I don't even want to think about it," he said.

His employer, John Lucey, owner of The Wakefield Cos., a Danvers trucking firm, sees no viable option other than a midnight-to-noon shipping schedule, a proposal he will broach with Gillette. "They've got on-time deliveries for their products. They have to continue their manufacturing cycle," said Lucey, who will pay drivers overtime to meet his client's demanding schedule. "It'll be very costly and disruptive."

Gillette mechanic Bob Gay has found what he views as the only sane solution for convention week: vacation. Taking a cigarette break outside the plant, he explained that he sets aside the first two weeks of July for his annual trip to Florida. At the first whiff of convention "hassle," he requested the last two weeks instead. "I'm getting out of town," Gay said.

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.