All jobs cut at Norwalk Furniture

NORWALK The previous layoffs were temporary. Not this time. Norwalk Fu
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010



The previous layoffs were temporary.

Not this time.

Norwalk Furniture is permanently sacking its employees.

In a message posted on his company's blog, Jim Gerken, Norwalk Furniture chairman, informed employees that while a deal to purchase the company was still possible, workers would have to be rehired by the new company -- their jobs with the old company are gone.

"If purchase of the assets of the company is made, it would be by a new company who would hire former Norwalk Furniture employees," said Mary Geretz, receptionist with the company.

The notice that Milt Cassara received at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday was that the book was closed on Norwalk Furniture.

"So it's not layoffs, they are done. As far as Norwalk Furniture goes, they do not exist anymore," Cassara said, president of the United Steelworkers Local 4U.

The union represents about 373 Norwalk Furniture employees.

After the two investment groups -- Blackbird Capital Partners and IRG Capital Group -- pulled out of negotiations to purchase the company earlier this month, Gerken tried to find new investors.

Those efforts apparently were unsuccessful because he dissolved the 102-year-old company this week, Cassara said.

The post from Gerken on the company blog, which has become the primary source of updates from Norwalk Furniture after it canned its public relations firm, says the hope is still to find a new company to "complete the work in process and fill the orders in the backlog as well as to continue production on an ongoing basis."

The plan remains to resume production by finding an investor to lease or purchase the company. Even if such an investor emerges, it doesn't mean employees return back to work for business as usual.

"It would be a new company and they would want to hire former Norwalk Furniture employees -- who else would know how to make the furniture?" Geretz said. "We would need somebody with expertise."

Bethany Dentler, Norwalk's economic development director, said the entire Norwalk Furniture brand is up for sale.

"Basically the assets of the company, which would include the name, would be on the table for a newly reformed Norwalk Furniture," Dentler said.

Norwalk Furniture as it was is gone, but she said there is potential for a new company to arise from its ashes.

Jim McTevia, chief restructuring officer with the furniture company, said there are promising business talks underway to sell its assets to a group of local business leaders.

"The ability of that company to restart operations intact lies in the success of a group of Norwalk business persons -- individuals ... who would buy the assets of the Norwalk facility: land, buildings, machinery and equipment, the whole thing," McTevia said.

The Norwalk plant is a viable business waiting to happen, he said. With a flick of the power switch, the manufacturing plant would be ready to start producing high-end furniture, and many former employees would be back to work.

All that's needed is for investors to purchase the assets -- and the sooner the better.

"Hopefully that group will be ready to move quickly because the real value in the assets is in the book of business, which is slowly being lost while the company's closed, and in the goodwill of franchisees," McTevia said.

If things go according to plan, the newly laid-off employees will not be out of jobs for too long. But that assumes a deal can be reached and a large chunk of the workforce will not be trimmed by the new owners.

McTevia said Norwalk Furniture's other plants down south are unlikely to survive in one piece. He said the main focus is on saving the local plant.

"They probably won't be sold intact, even though we are working hard to sell Hickory Hill intact," he said.

As negotiations continue, former workers struggle with problems arising from their unemployment. The union's health insurance was terminated Sept. 2, and workers weren't told of this until Sept. 16, Cassara said. That leaves some members uninsured.

"We have a major problem," Cassara said. "We're looking at that legally."

An informational meeting for recently laid-off employees is being hosted at 9 a.m. today at the Ernsthausen Performing Arts Center at Norwalk High School.