Jackson County, Ala., got a shock Tuesday when its second-largest employer, flooring-maker Beaulieu America, told the 390 employees at Beaulieu's Bridgeport Fibers Plant that all but 15 to 20 of them would be laid off by March 31.
Even an incentive package code-named Project Boss that was delivered Monday to the Dalton, Ga.,- based floormaker by the state of Alabama wasn't enough to convince Beaulieu America to keep the plant open. Instead, Beaulieu America let its employees know about 16 hours later that it will consolidate its fiber-making operations at a plant it operates in the Dalton, Ga., area.
"It's a sad day for us," said Tom Ellis, spokesman for Beaulieu, which is pronounced bol yuh and is a French word meaning "beautiful place."
Shrinking demand for wall-to-wall carpet in homes is one reason that Beaulieu decided to close the fiber plant that opened in 1987, which is one of the company's oldest, if not the oldest plant, Ellis said.
"It's a consumer demand issue that we're having to face," he said. "[Carpeting] was 60 percent of the pie in 2006, it's now about 43 percent of the pie. In the residential [sector], it's being moved out quicker because of the lower cost of engineered woods and the lower cost of alternatives."
Beaulieu America President Michael Pollard said in a statement that the layoffs have "nothing to do with the performance of our people in Bridgeport.
"Our associates there have performed very well over the years, and we are grateful for their dedication and service," he said.
Pollard noted that Beaulieu America will continue to operate its 225-employee Bridgeport Fabrics Plant, which has been there since 1990. It makes material used in carpet backing.
"This is not the news we wanted to hear," said Gary Chandler, the president and CEO of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority. "Our thoughts are with the Beaulieu employees and their families during this difficult time."
Assistance for employees
Chandler said the Rapid Response Team from the Alabama Department of Commerce's Workforce Development Division will provide on-site assistance to Beaulieu America workers to be laid off. The team will meet with employees where they'll receive information about unemployment compensation, job training, employment services, health insurance, credit counseling and other services.
"There are Jackson County manufacturers and employers that are seeking workers," Chandler said. The best way to learn more about these opportunities is to visit the website at joblink.alabama.gov, he said.
The Bridgeport Fibers plant extrudes nylon, polyester and polypropylene fibers, provides heat set and cabling for these fibers, and produces nylon pellets for fiber extrusion. The pellet operation of the facility will remain operational, with 15 to 20 employees, Ellis said.
The two Beaulieu America plants in Bridgeport made carpet industry history when they opened, because the company's founder, Carl Bouckaert was the first to use "vertical integration," said Kemp Harr, publisher and owner of Chattanooga-based Floor Focus Magazine and Floordaily.net.
Vertical integration is a company's practice of making all the components itself, as opposed to buying materials from outside suppliers.
"These two plants at Bridgeport are somewhat historic," Harr said. "Carl was the first one to do [vertical integration] at these two plants."
Other large flooring businesses followed suit, Harr said.
Bouckaert, a 62-year-old native of Belgium, cuts a dashing figure. He's competed for Belgium in equestrian events in the Olympics, and his horse farm some 25 miles southwest of Atlanta has been the site of the TomorrowWorld electronic dance festival that draws about 50,000 people.
Beaulieu's ranking slipped
Beaulieu America was once the U.S.'s third-largest carpet maker, Harr said, behind Shaw Industries and Mohawk Industries. But it's fallen to fourth place, displaced by Bob Shaw's Engineered Floors.
The privately-held, family-owned business in the spring of last year named Michael Pollard, Bouckaert's son-in-law, as its new president. Pollard said then that Beaulieu America hoped to avoid mass layoffs and wanted to reduce its workforce through attrition.
The layoffs at Beaulieu's Bridgeport Fibers Plant should be the largest cuts that the company makes, Ellis said.
"This is the most significant. We had taken other courses of action up to this point," he said.
While Alabama offered incentives to keep the plant; Georgia didn't, Ellis said. But the logistics were such, he said, that Alabama's incentive offer didn't offset the advantages of the Georgia plant.