Changing times flatten Maryland laminate maker

Nevamar's Odenton plant to close

360 jobs to be cut

October 03, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Henry L. Hillery has worked at Nevamar Co.'s manufacturing plant in Odenton for 16 years. He figured he would retire after a few more. Hitting the job market at age 59 was not on his to-do list.

But the company told workers this week that it will close the laminate factory by April to consolidate operations at its other plant in South Carolina. That means 360 jobs - including Hillery's - are about to fade away, victimized by changing trends in the countertop industry.

An added nail in the coffin is the growing popularity of the plant's longtime location: Once a remote corner of western Anne Arundel County, Odenton has morphed into a boom town of rising land values, as office buildings have surrounded the Fort George G. Meade Army base and the region's largest shopping mall, Arundel Mills, has opened in the vicinity. Nevamar plans to sell the 31-acre property.

"It's going to be hard starting over again," said Hillery, a Baltimore resident, as he left his midnight-to-8 a.m. shift yesterday. "It's going to be very hard."

Jim Tees, president and chief executive officer of Nevamar, said high-pressure laminate used to cover countertops and cabinets has been in decline for several years as the material has lost ground to stone and other decorative surfacing materials.

Laminate's long stranglehold on the countertop market has slipped to 50 percent or 60 percent, he said. Meanwhile, foreign competition is eating away at the office-fixture side of the business.

Nevamar's corporate office in Odenton will remain in Maryland, officials said, though a site has not been determined. But the manufacturer couldn't keep both its high-pressure laminate plants open because they were operating at less than half capacity, Tees said.

"This company, if it's going to be around for the long haul, simply had to make a very tough decision," he said.

Workers and officials in the tiny city of Hampton, S.C., pulled together to overcome the Odenton plant's advantages by offering wage concessions and property tax reductions. The surrounding county, the state and even the local electric utility also threw incentives into the pot.

"I said, `We're going to need a miracle,' and we got one," said Jim Daniel, executive director of the Hampton County Economic Development Commission. "This employer is too important to Hampton County to let them leave. ... It's our largest nongovernment employer."

Maryland also tried to convince Nevamar to stay here, said William A. Badger Jr., president of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. He joined Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, in meeting with Nevamar officials in Odenton two weeks ago in a last-ditch effort to offer incentives.

"There was just a multiple number of issues that we didn't have the ability to impact," Badger said.

Tees said concessions in Hampton simply made its site competitive with the Odenton plant, so one of the deciding factors was space. The South Carolina property is larger - 56 acres, all told.

About 250 people work at the Hampton plant's decorative laminate division, a number that will double, said Kathy Clark, vice president for human resources. Many of the workers to be hired are those recently laid off from the Hampton site after the company sold another division last spring. But Clark said she hoped that some employees at Odenton - particularly engineers and technicians - will relocate.

The first round of layoffs in Odenton is expected Nov. 29 and will affect about 80 people. The 50 people on the corporate staff there will keep their jobs, although they will relocate to another building in the area when the plant property is sold.

The business opened in Odenton in 1943 as the National Plastics Co., near routes 175 and 170, when the community was still reeling from the abandonment of the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad a decade earlier. Bought and merged several times, the company was most recently acquired last year by Kohlberg & Co., a private equity firm with headquarters in New York and California.

Workers have made everything from paint-brush bristles to Barbie doll hair over the years. Nevamar now focuses on laminate and particle board production.

"I would speculate that Hampton, S.C., was able and willing to pay more than we felt our county could pay ... to win the bidding, so to speak," said Anne Arundel County Councilman Bill D. Burlison, a Democrat who lives in the community and stated that local officials did all they could to hold onto the company. "It's obviously a very substantial economic loss and a hardship on a lot of families."

Hampton County couldn't afford to lose the plant after a half-dozen factories had closed there in recent years, said Daniel, the economic development official.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.