Nebraska-based Behlen Manufacturing Co. will manufacture farm and ranch equipment in the former Smead building on U.S. Highway 84 in McGregor and hopes to hire 50 people next year, with skilled welders making up to $25 an hour.

Company officials, attending a news conference Wednesday at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce headquarters, praised the work of the Waco and McGregor chambers and economic development organizations in making their move to Texas a reality.

“Texas is our No. 1 state in terms of shipments from our Behlen Country division,” CEO Phil Raimondo said.

The company signed a long-term lease on the 181,000-square-foot Smead facility and invested $1.7 million in equipment and modifications.

The company intends to employ 50 at its McGregor plant by the end of 2013, but it has longer-term goals of 85 and 100 employees, said Darren Siekman, president of Behlen Country.

He said employees, which are called “Partners in Progress,” typically will make $10 to $15 an hour, depending on skill level, with top-flight welders possibly making up to $25 an hour.

Behlen will begin production in January and will create lines to make stock tanks, dog kennels and gates.

It is recruiting volunteers at its plants in Nebraska, Oregon and Tennessee to relocate to McGregor because it wants a core of staffers with experience “in the company culture,” Siekman said. But it also is accepting applications from local residents.

The company needs people with skills in welding, maintenance, production and general manufacturing, officials said.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he is excited about the welding positions Behlen will create.

He said several local school districts, including Waco ISD, are pursuing creation of an advanced welding academy that would prepare students for jobs in industry.

It also would prepare them for more advanced welding studies at Texas State Technical College.

Some machinery and equipment will be relocated to McGregor from a plant in Huntingdon, Tenn., which became a distribution center in October. None of the plants from which employees are transferring is closing, Raimondo said.

Behlen, founded in 1936, delivers products nationwide through more than 4,000 farm stores and home centers, including Tractor Supply. Its roots lie in agriculture, Raimondo said, which is why it chose the Smead facility near the longtime farming community of McGregor from among several buildings it toured locally during several months with Realtors Bland Cromwell and Joe Paschall.

“We understand that a company of your status had options, but you took a chance on McGregor,” McGregor Mayor Jim Hering said to the contingent from Behlen. “The vast agricultural community in McGregor welcomes you with open arms.”

Smead Manufacturing

Smead Manufacturing produced paper folders at the McGregor location for 40 years, but announced in 2010 that it was closing because of slumping sales brought on by the use of computers to sort and store information. Smead once employed more than 400 but had seen that number drop to 139.

Smith said his community offered Behlen an incentive package that includes tax abatements on its equipment; $60,000 for water and sewer infrastructure improvements adjacent to the plant; and $25,000 worth of manpower to make those upgrades.

Sarah Roberts, an industry recruiter for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said Behlen also likely will qualify for cash incentives from the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. fund.

Neither she nor Behlen officials would say how much has been requested. The figure will become public when Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners vote on whether to approve the allocation.

Roberts said officials consider the overall economic impact of a project, including the number of jobs created, when they earmark funds. Companies designate a specific number of employees to apply toward meeting city-county guidelines, and they must make at least $12 an hour.

Behlen employs about 850 people and has annual revenues of nearly $180 million.