Hibma hangs up his hardhat
WORTHINGTON -- Forty-two years ago this week, Mike Hibma was a fresh-faced kid who reported for his first day of work at a brand-new manufacturing plant on Rowe Avenue in Worthington.
On Friday, Mike -- now a grizzled veteran of the modular building trade -- will exit the building as a retiree.
Mike was just 22 years old when he was hired at was then the Boise-Cascade mobile home plant in Worthington.
"I graduated (from high school) in '66, then I put in a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, the last year in Vietnam," Mike explained. "I got out in 1970 and had a short week at the Armour plant on the cleaning crew. I figured I wasn't going to do that for the rest of my life."
So Mike applied for a job as a forklift operator at Boise-Cascade and was hired.
The plant was almost completely empty at the time, and he remembers unloading the overhead monorail system and other equipment from a rail car behind the plant. Because the office space wasn't ready, the operation was temporarily based at the downtown Armory building.
Mike credits a clerical error for introducing him to his wife, Rhonda. His paycheck was supposed to be directly deposited into his bank account, and when he went to withdraw the money, he discovered it had been deposited into the wrong bank.
"Rhonda was three tellers down, and she wanted to meet me," he recalled about their first encounter at the financial institution. "We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary last year."
Getting in on what was literally the ground floor of the operation, Mike recalls that Boise-Cascade started production about a month into his tenure. A few years later, the plant was sold to Bendix Corp., which after a few more years sold out to Commodore Homes.
"I had 15 years in here when Commodore went bankrupt," he said, remembering what it was like to suddenly find out he and his co-workers no longer had jobs. "I was laid off for eight months."
Under the leadership of fellow Commodore employees Shannon Rickert and Greg DeGroot, the plant reopened as Highland Manufacturing, and Mike returned to work. He recently went through his fifth transition to a new owner when Highland was sold to Champion Enterprises and became Champion Home Builders.
While he started as a forklift operator, Mike transitioned to other tasks.
"During the Commodore days, I was doing costing for houses, figuring everything that goes into producing a house," Mike explained. "Then when it was Highland, they needed a dispatcher to dispatch houses to all the dealers."
Along the way, he began ordering all the window treatments -- drapes and blinds -- for the house, but he only orders them, doesn't pick them out, Mike clarified.
"There's a company in Iowa that receives my orders and ships them up here," he said.
But the duty that Mike enjoys most at Champion is counting. He's responsible for the daily inventories of everything that goes into making a Champion modular home.
"I've been taking inventories for the purchasing agent for 40 years," said Mike, who traverses the plant multiple times each day in pursuit of parts to count. "I probably put on six to eight miles a day walking back and forth counting. ... I can tell you where every little screw is in the plant and what it's used for. I count everything in the plant in a week's time."
Because he's been a devoted employee for so long and handled so many diverse tasks, Mike's retirement will leave a void at the plant, said Champion Home Builders General Manager Steve Berger.
"When he told me he was going to retire, I told him, 'We have to have an agreement so I can call you if I need you,'" Berger related. "We're going to miss him, quite honestly."
"I only live three blocks from here," replied Mike. "All they have to do is call."
And while he is officially retired, Mike plans to continue at least one Champion duty for a while.
"I'll be escorting drivers for 10-wides," he said, referring to transportation of homes that, according to Minnesota law, have to be accompanied on highways. "I put the yellow lights on my truck and follow them on the interstate to the South Dakota border. I've been doing that since September of last year."
Many of Champion's products have recently been making their way west and north, Mike noted, to house workers in the oil fields in North Dakota, and he expects more to be shipped to Canada.
"The employees out here build a quality product," he credited.
In addition to escort duty, Mike anticipates that his retirement hours will be filled by the "honey-do" list that Rhonda has ready, and he looks forward to putting more miles on his other pride and joy -- a 1970 Chevelle Malibu that he's had almost as long as he's worked at the plant. H e took ownership of the car in April 1970.
The Hibmas also expect to do more traveling -- visiting son Jody, a biology teacher, and their 11-year-old identical twin granddaughters in Detroit Lakes -- and other distant relatives. Eventually, they have talked about moving to a warmer climate, but for the time being MIke wants to get used to not going to work every day.
"I think I'm going to miss it," he admitted. "I've been walking in the same door for 42 years. It will be strange at first."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at