A Boss Saves Jobs-by Helping the Community

updated 03/22/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/22/2010 01:00AM

CHUCK SIBLEY, 56 Huntsville, Ala.

It was 3 a.m. and Chuck Sibley couldn't sleep. A production slowdown was coming down the line at the Navistar Diesel engine plant where he is manager, and all he could think of were the employees who'd be getting pink slips. How would the single mom feed her kids? Where would that father of four find money to pay the mortgage? "Chuck was sick about it," recalls his wife, Teresa, 52. But that night some months ago he suddenly sat up in bed. "I thought, 'What if we kept all the employees working, but out in the community?'" Chuck says. "I wondered if I could pitch it."

Pitch, hit-and home run. In a move that has earned him the heartfelt gratitude of his employees and many residents in the community, Chuck persuaded his managers at Navistar International Corp. to retain about 50 workers-with full pay and benefits-who otherwise would have been laid off. Now they're working with local nonprofit groups to build homes, stock thrift-store shelves and carry out other projects to help the needy. The plan, which launched in January, will last at least into early spring. "This is our most productive plant, and it's because of the people," says Eric Tech, president of Navistar Engine Group. "By demonstrating loyalty to your people, you get it back in kind. We believe this is a good investment."

Employees volunteered and got connected to three area charities: Care Assurance Systems for the Aging and Homebound, Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army. Workers put in 10-hour shifts four days a week. "These guys are amazing," Garth Lovvorn, 36, executive director for Habitat's Athens, Ala., office, says of his 13-member Navistar team, now building their second home. Navistar employees have also built or repaired 47 wheelchair ramps, cleaned up almost a dozen foreclosed properties and sorted several tons of clothing and household donations for the Salvation Army.

Blinking back tears of gratitude, Brenda Downs, 63, recently watched the swinging hammers of a team of six Navistar workers finish a wheelchair ramp for her husband, David, 69, a retired graphic artist who has Parkinson's disease. Getting her husband out of the house had become impossible without assistance. "Now I can get David to the doctor," Downs says. "This is a godsend."

The gravel-voiced Chuck, who greets each employee by name, has weathered his share of hardship: On his own at 16 with $6.50 in his pocket after his mother's death from cancer, he later joined the Army and eventually earned an engineering degree. When his first wife, Diane, died as a result of complications from multiple sclerosis, he was left a widower with two young sons. Today one is a pastor, the other an engineer (and his stepdaughter is a physical therapist). He and his second wife, Teresa, have been married 23 years; she is now struggling with bile-duct cancer. But indulging in self-pity is not in Chuck's playbook. "Everyone," he says, "has things going on outside of work."

His understanding of real-world pressures has created a bond between Chuck and his workers-one only strengthened by his job-saving campaign. "It was scary," Jared Smith, 31, a machinist and father of 4-month-old Maggie, says of the layoff rumors that swept the plant; he's now working on a Habitat home-building crew. "You want to provide for your family. When I heard Chuck was doing this, I was blown away." Kim D'Agresta, 53, an engine assembler whose husband also works in the struggling auto industry, seconds the sentiment. "I'm so relieved," she says. "Chuck has a heart as big as his body."

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