By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — After several years of rapid expansion, Middlebury-based Connor Homes has scaled back operations and trimmed staff as business slows in the current economic downturn.
About 50 people now work for the homegrown company, which specializes in colonial reproduction “kit” homes assembled in the 115,000-square-foot Route 7 building that is the former home of Standard Register.
That means the employee base is down around 20 from just the past spring, when Connor Homes officials reported booming business even as the national housing market was slumping. Officials back in May said that sales had tripled during the previous year.
But Connor Homes Chief Operating Officer Holly Kelton confirmed on Tuesday that many prospective customers have been putting their orders on hold in view of recent events on Wall Street.
“In September, a number of our customers decided to postpone production of homes,” Kelton said. “We have temporarily scaled back operations.”
Connor Homes began restructuring at its plant in August, Kelton said, replacing some of its workers with others who had different “skill levels.” She said the company started reducing its employee base last month, primarily in the design and production departments.
Gabe McGuigan of Brandon worked as an architect designer at Connor Homes until he was let go in July. McGuigan said he noticed times getting tougher when fewer orders for average-sized homes (around 2,000 square feet) were being taken on by work crews. That left smaller projects — like sheds and garages — or larger homes that were not as profitable to the company, according to McGuigan.
“The drop began at the end of June and went on from there,” said McGuigan, who added the company at one point had to shut down the shop “for a couple of weeks because there was nothing to do.”
Layoffs have sent some well-paid, skilled builders back into the marketplace looking for work. McGuigan has established his own business, Mill Creek Design and Build, in Brandon.
Kelton said she hopes Connor Homes will rebound soon.
“We are certainly hoping this is temporary and that we can bring a majority of our workforce back over the winter months,” Kelton said. “Our hope is to be at around 60 employees by the first of the year, but that’s uncertain.”
Longtime general contractor Michael Connor founded Connor Homes around 16 years ago. The company quickly grew from a handful of employees to 32 in early 2007, prompting Connor to grow the business out of the 14,000 square feet it was occupying off Exchange Street.
He seized the opportunity during the spring of 2007 when Standard Register pulled out of its Route 7 headquarters south of Middlebury village. Connor Homes purchased the property, viewing it as a location into which it could grow and meet increasing demand, while eventually boosting its workforce to 90 or more employees.
Local economic development officials at the time were hopeful that Connor Homes could ultimately fill the void of the 112 jobs lost to the local economy when Standard Register left town last year.
Unfortunately, news on the local manufacturing scene has only gotten worse during the past several months. CPC of Vermont closed its doors earlier this year, resulting in the loss of dozens of jobs. CPC officials, to date, have declined interview requests from the Addison Independent.
While Connor Homes is going through a rough patch, Kelton said not all news is bad.
“We don’t intend to do any more cuts at this point,” Kelton said, adding the company will offer some sales incentives to stimulate more business during the winter months.
And she added that while people aren’t buying right now, they are doing a lot of “window shopping.”
“September was our busiest sales inquiry month in the history of the company,” Kelton said, noting requests for 297 Connor Homes catalogues. “We believe most of our customers will be ready to build during the winter-spring of 2009.”