Employees at Marada Industries Inc. were celebrating Thursday instead of working. The VIPs from General Motors were sitting on a rented stage in the middle of the auto parts plant, and the plant manager washolding a just-received award above his head, prizefighter style.

"It makes me proud," said David A. Wolford, a press operator from Westminster who brought his 1-year-old son to the awards ceremony.

Wanda L. Wren, a spot welder from Littlestown, Pa., said, "It makes you want to do better and better every day."

Maradareceived GM's "Mark of Excellence" award, an honor given to suppliers GM considers outstanding. The automaker's truck and bus group, for which Marada supplies parts, has honored 13 of 163 companies surveyedsince the program began about three years ago, said Bob C. Taylor, part of the GM team from Pontiac, Mich., that evaluated Marada.

Marada's 185 employees worked the previous Saturday in order to close the plant Thursday for the celebration, general manager Kenneth B. Jacobs said.

"You're a good bunch. I appreciate it," he told the crowd of employees sitting in rows of chairs in front of the stage.

The award could mean more business for Marada, which has suffered because of sluggish new-car sales. Marada's sales are down about 17 percent for the current fiscal year, which began in August, Jacobs said.

Sales for Marada, a subsidiary of Canadian-based Magna International, are projected to be $49 million for this fiscal year, he said.

The award "places you at the forefront for consideration of new business," John Kelly, director of supplier management at GM, told employees.

Taylor said GM started the awards program in order to identify its best suppliers and pare down the number of companies from which it buys.

Only two of the 13 winners -- one of them Marada -- have won the award on the first try, he said. Marada is the second company in Maryland to win; the other was Johnson Controls Inc. in Belcamp, Harford County.

Companies are judged in five areas -- quality, cost, delivery, technology and leadership.

After Marada completed many forms, a team from GM visited for three days last May to see the operation and talkto employees.

"They analyze your business from the ground up," Jacobs said. "They don't take your word for anything. They like to see documents."

The company scored highly in all areas, Taylor said.

Jacobs was the assistant general manager when Marada was evaluated. His brother, Robert H. Jacobs was general manager then; he left in December for a job in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Even though sales are down, Jacobs said he has assured employees, or associates as the company calls them, that they won't be laid off. Managers met with employees Wednesday to discuss the company's financialsituation and outlook.

"We also reassured them that unless something drastic happens, we will provide them with work," he said.

In addition to GM, the company supplies parts to Chrysler, Jeep and Honda. But to lessen its dependence on the auto industry, Marada is working to diversify, Jacobs said.

Marada's goal is to have 20 percent of its sales be non-automotive, said assistant general manager Dan L. Quickel.

The company has looked at making office desk drawers, office partitions, lawn-mower parts and propane gas tanks, among other things, Jacobs said. The sales force has been reorganized to try to attract new business, he said.

Marada also istrying to become a supplier for a new Toyota plant in Kentucky, Quickel said.

It's also working to reduce costs. Company cars and car phones have been cut out and travel expenses trimmed, Jacobs said.

Managers are using the slow period to do more training and studies. For example, to reduce the time it takes to set up equipment to produce a new part, employees will film themselves while doing the work, watch the film, take notes on wasted time and repeat the process until they're satisfied, he said.

Wanda L. Jacobs, aspot welder from Westminster, has worked at Marada since it opened six years ago.

"We used to pack parts in cardboard boxes, andnow we have a world-class award," she said. "If we can do this in six years, what can we do down the road?"

Jacobs said she worries about the unpredictability of the auto business, but likes the benefits and working conditions at Marada. She said she likes being able to go into the general manager's office when she has a problem or complaint.

"Even with the insecurity, we're willing to stick it out here," she said.

Carol L. Lentzner, a computer assistant and tool crib attendant from Westminster, said the GM award "gives us more job security."

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