Shutdown touches many

Preston: The loss of Preston Trucking, the town's largest employer raises fears about an economic ripple effect.

July 28, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

PRESTON -- From the pizza shop to the corner diner to the hair salon, residents of this small Eastern Shore town worried yesterday about the ripple effect of the surprise closing of its largest employer.

Preston Trucking Co. Inc. announced Monday that it would go out of business this week. After the final shipments are made, the economic mainstay of life in Preston for 67 years will cease to exist -- with a potentially serious impact on local businesses and Caroline County's economic health.

The news came as a shock to virtually everyone concerned -- from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to Caroline County officials to the company's 295 employees at its headquarters.

"It's tough. It's really tough," said Chris Hall, a 28-year veteran with the trucking company. "It's not like you're not going to be working with friends anymore. It's like losing your family."

Preston officials said they were forced to close after a meeting Saturday in which the company's lenders refused to fund its money-losing operations. While county officials expressed faint hopes that the decision could be reversed, Preston President Dave Letke said yesterday that the decision is final.

"This is definitive," he said. Letke said Preston has been encouraged by the response of the local business community, which has flooded the company with job offers for its employees.

But in the shops of Preston, employees and proprietors worried about the anticipated impact of the closing.

Herman Digner, a retired Naval Academy worker who cooks at Pam's Place, said the closing "can't help but hurt" his daughter's pizza restaurant. He said Preston employees account for about 60 percent of the shop's lunch trade.

"It's a ripple-down thing. Gas stations, everybody's going to go," he said.

Digner said the company, which employed 5,500 truckers and other workers in North America, had brought a lot of money into the community. He noted the large number of expensive cars in the company parking lot, many of which bear the nameplate of nearby Preston Ford.

"The repo man is going to have a field day down there," chimed in waitress and cashier Michelle Howdershelt.

Lisa Patrick, who runs a one-chair hair salon on the town's main street, said many women who work at Preston come into her shop on their lunch breaks.

"Now they're going to be traveling to other places for employment, and it may not be convenient for them to stop here anymore," she said.

At the company headquarters about a mile away, most employees were too busy to spend much time in mourning. Company officials discouraged interviews with the news media, citing the heavy workload involved in shutting down.

Final shipments had to be completed. Employees around the country worried about benefits.

Receptionist Mary White handled call after call with dignified composure -- reflecting the sentiments of "The Serenity Prayer" posted at her work station. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," it begins.

State and county officials said they could do nothing to change the outcome because they had no inkling that the company was on the brink of failure.

Glendening, who was touring Smith Island yesterday, said he did not know about the company's problems. He said that if state officials had known, they would have tried to learn whether there was anything they could have done to help.

Glendening said the state Department of Business and Economic Development's "rapid response team" would be dispatched to Caroline County to help displaced workers find new jobs, apply for unemployment benefits and sign up for job training programs.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to match some of those people up immediately with other jobs elsewhere," Glendening said. "There are many, many vacancies in the state right now, and we're hoping the majority of people will be placed that way."

Caroline County officials said they, too, were unaware of the company's problems. Members of Preston's management team met with the county Economic Development Commission in May and said the firm's financial health seemed to be improving.

"There was no indication any of this was in the offing," said Helen Spinelli, the county's director of economic development and tourism. "They weren't coming from a position of strength, but we were told that business was up 5 percent. Obviously, that was not enough."

The company's unionized truckers are expected to have little trouble finding new jobs because of a nationwide shortage of drivers.

Phil Feaster, president of Teamsters Local 639 in Washington, said many of the 65 Preston workers from Baltimore who have health and pension plans through his local have been calling about their retirement options.

But Feaster said he is optimistic about their prospects. "There's a dramatic need for truck drivers out here," he said. "I've already had companies call me and say, `Please, send me the Preston drivers.' "

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