By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON –– Robert Martin has worked at Vermont Tubbs for almost 30 years, but at the end of the day Friday he and roughly 90 of his co-workers will be out of work as the furniture manufacturing plant closes its doors.
Despite the efforts of local and state officials to keep Vermont Tubbs afloat in Brandon, the company’s new owners announced last week that the furniture manufacturing plant would be closing its doors July 18.
“We feel terrible for the employees and their families,” said Janet Mondlak, executive director of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce. “This is a huge loss for Brandon. We feel helpless, and if there is anything we can do for any of the employees, we will.”
The plant closure comes just six weeks after the company was sold to Brownstreet Furniture, a New Hampshire-based manufacturer of high-end wood furniture. Although new owners Kyle and Adam Tager had initially said they would wait 90 days before making any decisions about the Tubbs plant, the Vermont Department of Labor was informed of the closing July 10. Calls to Tubbs and Brownstreet for comment were not returned.
BSF Transitions issued a press release late Friday saying that it faced the same economic pressures that the previous Tubbs owners faced and that those pressures drove BSF to move operations to Whitefield, N.H.
Martin, 60, works the rough mill machine at the plant. He and his wife, Patty, live in Brandon. Martin said he has seen the company change owners many times in his years at the plant, but last week’s announcement surprised him.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “Everything was going good. Orders were coming in and going out. I assumed everything was fine.”
The move comes after months of wrangling to secure over $500,000 in state and local economic development grants intended to preserve jobs at Tubbs by providing needed operating capital and debt. The town of Brandon was going to loan Tubbs $80,000 in a separate agreement, the maximum amount the town can loan through its revolving loan fund. The previous owners did not take up the grants before selling the company and the new owners never availed themselves of the state’s offer to re-apply for the funds.
The loans were the latest in a series of moves Tubbs has made since 2003 to try to turn a profit. The company was nearly liquidated in 2003, but was purchased at the last minute by a group of investors.
State Commissioner of Economic Development Mike Quinn said his office had been working hard offering the new owners every incentive available to keep the plant open.
“We’re very disappointed,” he said. “We put offers on the table for them and it was everything we have the statutory capability to offer to make things work for them.”
The new owners had said that high energy costs and property taxes were affecting the company’s bottom line, but Quinn said there was a solution in the works for utility costs.
“We worked with CVPS and they were looking at rates and a strategy they could use to reduce power costs,” he said. “We had everybody doing what we could do to put our best foot forward on this deal and we just didn’t get there. They made their decision.”
Selectman Richard Baker said the town was also looking into helping ease the property tax burden on Tubbs. He said another tax stabilization agreement was in the works, similar to the agreement negotiated in 1997, where Tubbs paid a much lower property tax of $71,000 a year for 10 years. That agreement expired last year. Tubbs had been paying roughly $102,000 a year in local taxes without an agreement.
But Baker said in addition to taxes and utility costs that put pressure on Tubbs owners, he considers the rent too high. The building’s owner, Stag II Limited Liability Corp., couldn’t be reached by press time.
“We could’ve offered to cut taxes to zero and cut electric bills to $5 a month,” Baker said.
Samantha Clark has worked at Tubbs for about 18 months. She is an apprentice in the case furniture department, working on dressers and chests. Unlike Martin, Clark said the lay-offs were not a surprise.
“Everybody knew it was coming, but I’m kind of disappointed,” she said. “It was a good environment, a different kind of work. Everyday I had a different challenge.”
Clark, 21, said Brownstreet offered all of the workers the opportunity to work in the company’s smaller northern New Hampshire manufacturing facility. She said she and her boyfriend, who also works at Tubbs, may make the move.
“We have no ties,” she said. “We may go see what that factory is like. They said our pay raises might be cut because the cost of living is lower (in New Hampshire). But I would like to continue with the same type of company.”
Clark said the mood at Tubbs the day the lay-offs were announced was varied.
“Some people were bummed, some were relieved,” she said. “Everybody has mixed emotions. You’ve got older people who aren’t going to be able to work somewhere else. A lot of couples and families are working there. One woman who works third shift has five kids. What’s she going to do?”
Clark said no severance packages were offered, but that Brownstreet would try to pay vacation time owed to the employees.
“Besides paying the bank, they said the next in line would be us before they paid the other people they owed,” Clark said.
The Vermont Department of Labor sent a rapid response team to the Arnold District Road plant last Thursday after receiving a call from the company’s human resources department. Vermont Labor Commissioner Patricia Moulton Powden said the rapid response team makes the employees aware of the department’s services, such as how to apply for unemployment benefits.
“Our primary concern is always trying to care for those folks and have as smooth a transition as possible for them,” she said.
Powden said the lack of a severance package makes the sting of lay-offs even more painful. With heating oil prices at an all-time high, Powden said these workers will be hurting this winter.
“It’s not a good day at all.” Powden said. “We have not been informed of any severance package, which makes it even worse. No doubt it’s got to be a fearful thing as winter looms large.”
Robert Martin said he will apply for unemployment insurance, but didn’t know what his next job might be.
“That I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m hoping that there’s someone out there who’s in search of people and can put a lot of them back to work, but it doesn’t look good.”