Cheap imports kill Maine's wood products industry

March 5, 2003

NORWAY, Maine (AP) - For decades, the C.B. Cummings & Sons plant buzzed with scores of employees transforming logs into dowels that went into furniture, toys and novelties. The plant even made parts for Tinker Toys and the tiny wooden hotels and houses on Monopoly board games.

Billings Gazette

Now C.B. Cummings' aging cinderblock and wooden buildings sit empty, the victims of cheap imports. The company has auctioned its equipment and is seeking a buyer for the buildings and four acres of land.

Across rural Maine, wood product businesses are in trouble. Nearly a dozen have closed in the past year; a similar number have laid off workers or reorganized.

Maine workers have long manufactured hundreds of everyday wooden products: golf tees, toothpicks, yardsticks, tongue depressors, Popsicle sticks, pepper mills, rolling pins, kitchen utensils, drumsticks, bird feeders. They've worked mostly at family-owned, multigenerational businesses in small rural towns.

One by one, the plants are vanishing.

Tyler Winter shut down the H.G. Winter and Sons plant in November, putting 27 people out of work. The company, founded in 1885, made rolling pins and pepper mills and at one time had 100 employees.

Winter, as others do, blames the flood of imports.

"The natural resources are here, the work force is here. It's just a matter of whether you can make it at a price that suits the global marketplace," Winter said.

Just five years ago, Cummings had 200 employees and annual sales of more than $7 million, said Brad Cummings, company president and the great, great-grandson of Charles Bradley Cummings, who started the company in 1860.

The decision to shut down came last September, after the company lost a million-dollar toy account. By then, annual sales had fallen to $3.5 million. The work force had dwindled to 35.

"It comes down to American labor-intensive manufacturing - it's out of here, and it ain't coming back," Cummings said outside his empty buildings. Other companies have laid off employees or reorganized to survive.

In December, Richard Penley turned off the machines at the Penley Corp. clothespin plant in West Paris, laying off 39 of the company's 54 employees. Penley now imports and distributes clothespins - the very ones he used to compete against - as well as wooden matches, toothpicks, plastic straws and cutlery.

Penley, whose company was started in 1923 by his grandfather and his two brothers, said this is an "evolutionary time" for Maine's wood product industry.

"The small family-owned, secondary wood processing companies are dying off," he said.

Bethel Furniture Stock shut down last summer, but reopened shortly thereafter with a new business plan and 29 fewer employees - 38 percent of its work force. It eliminated employee health benefits and focused on manufacturing products that aren't being produced overseas.

Leon Favreau, company president, is confident his business will survive, but only by changing.

"I don't know where this is going to end," he said.

The survivors will be those that distinguish themselves from foreign competition, said Philip Bibeau, executive director of the Wood Products Manufacturers Association in Westminster, Mass.

That means quick turnaround times, small production runs, custom work and superior customer support. Companies also need to modernize their plants to become more efficient, he said.

For now, nobody is saying the industry will disappear completely in Maine. After all, the state still has many wood product firms and easy access to birch and maple, ash and, oak.

But the industry has changed markedly in just the last two years, and will continue to change, said David Cuttler, chief executive officer of Saunders Brothers, a 102-year-old Westbrook company.

Saunders, for instance, is shutting down its manufacturing facilities in Westbrook and Rumford and will consolidate them with its plant in Greenwood. It is also diversifying, and three years ago bought a manufactured housing company in Oxford.

"Certainly, traditional manufacturers who haven't found ways to react to this are going out of business," Cuttler said. "We don't intend to be one of them."

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