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North Carolina furniture makers hit with major layoffs

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

More than 400 workers in Taylorsville, N.C., suddenly lost their jobs in August when a furniture factory closed. It's not the only manufacturing loss for a state known for its furniture industry and craftsmanship. Paul Garber from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem reports.

PAUL GARBER, BYLINE: The layoffs happened without warning - a Saturday email announcing the immediate closure of the Mitchell Gold-Bob Williams factory. And suddenly, all of its workers were without jobs, and an entire county was in scramble mode. Soon after, David Icenhour walks among the booths at the job fair he organized in a gym at East Taylorsville Baptist Church.

DAVID ICENHOUR: We were blindsided by the closure like all the employees were, as well.

GARBER: Eisenhauer is the economic development director for Alexander County, N.C. There are about 40 potential employers at the fair but not nearly enough to absorb the hundreds of lost jobs caused by the closure.

ICENHOUR: This is by far the largest job fair that we've seen in this county - I mean, I've been doing this over 20 years - because it's one of the largest needs that I've seen.

GARBER: Longtime Mitchell Gold-Bob Williams employee Julie Barnes says workers were told at a company town hall meeting over the summer that the parent company was investing $20 million and that everything was fine.

JULIE BARNES: We were on the upside of it. We were ready to thrive. And this was really a complete shock.

GARBER: She and her husband, Mickey, have combined more than 35 years with Mitchell Gold-Bob Williams and had hoped to retire there. Mitchell Gold, the co-founder, says he didn't want things to end the way they did.

MITCHELL GOLD: I was in disbelief that this was happening, this baby of mine.

GARBER: Blame the pandemic, a fluke surge in the industry. Buyers revamped their homes into remote offices or remodeled. It wasn't sustainable. Production ramped up, but sales went flat after the initial spike. Inventories became bloated. Mitchell Gold-Bob Williams was not spared from the oversupply.

GOLD: That became a cash flow drain.

GARBER: Gold retired in the summer before the pandemic. That's when the company had about $34 million in inventory.

GOLD: But by the time I got back in April of 2023, $72 million - and the business hadn't doubled. So that was a problem.

GARBER: Then the bank stopped funding the company. The Arkansas-based Stephens Group bought a majority stake in the business in 2015. Gold retained a seat on the board. Closure marked the end for a company that created a trend in the factory workplace, says Richard Eller, author of "Well-Crafted: The History Of Furniture Manufacturing In Western North Carolina," which started here in the 1890s. Eller says when Mitchell Gold got into the business about a hundred years later, he brought a social consciousness not seen in other companies.

RICHARD ELLER: For the vast majority of its history, furniture-making was a dirty job, and people accepted that fact. Mitchell Gold didn't accept that. And if you look at where furniture stands now, in a lot of ways, he led that revolution.

GARBER: They set up their business in Taylorsville, a township of just over 2,000 people in the shadows of the northwest North Carolina Brushy Mountains and its bountiful apple orchards. They offered workers an on-site day care, a health clinic and made their company a safe space for LGBTQ people.

GOLD: All of those things just evolved, and Bob and I wanted to have a place - as we said, when people drove by, they would say, that's where I want to work.

GARBER: And it was a good place to work, says Julie Barnes. Now at the job fair, she frets about finding insurance for her family. There are some prospects, but many would create hardships she didn't have at Mitchell Gold-Bob Williams.

BARNES: A lot of jobs are out of town. Where you used to drive in 10 minutes to work, we're going to have to drive 30, 45 to an hour to go to work. And with a child, that's hard to do.

GARBER: There are plenty of other manufacturing job offers at this fair, but the Mitchell Gold-Bob Williams workers aren't the only ones looking. In August, another regional furniture manufacturer, Klaussner Home Furnishings, also suddenly closed, putting more than 800 people out of work. For NPR News, I'm Paul Garber in North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Paul Garber / WFDD
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