Historic Woolrich mill closing

SARAH SMELTZ/THE EXPRESS The entrance of the Woolrich mill that will soon be closing doors.

WOOLRICH — A woolen mill that dates back to just after the founding of Woolrich Inc. in 1830 is closing.

The company, in a joint announcement with its new European owners, said the woolen mill and its fabric manufacturing operations will shut down by Jan. 1, resulting in the furlough of 40 people.

“The decision to close the mill was made following a comprehensive review of our overall woven fabric business and the considerable capital improvements needed to modernize and maintain viable operations. Unfortunately, due to higher manufacturing costs, eroding margins and continued unprofitability within the Mill, it is no longer economically feasible to continue our Pennsylvania based Woolen Mill operation,” said Nick Brayton, president of Woolrich Inc., in a prepared statement released Thursday.

The mill opened in 1845 and – at least for now – is the oldest, continuously operated mill in the United States.

But “it simply is not profitable,” Brayton said, because of its antiquated equipment.

“This is not an easy decision, obviously,” he added. “It’s basically a result of years of unprofitability within the mill.”

The decision was made by Woolrich International, in concert with L-GAM Advisors, which just bought Woolrich’s international and American operations in late September for an undisclosed price. L-GAM is based in Luxembourg. Including Brayton, a smaller group of Woolrich family members and former employees maintain minority ownership.

The Woolrich outlet store located in the iconic village is not affected by the mill’s closing, Brayton said, though he declined to speculate on its future.

However, the company’s distribution center, which reportedly is still open though in limited operation, is listed for sale at $3.1 million. The warehouse on just under 8 acres is located at 220 Shaffer Lane in Porter Township, outside of Jersey Shore Borough.

As for the village mill workers losing their jobs, Brayton said, “We’re taking the approach of providing notice to employees who are affected. Local officials also were notified.”

Woolrich will provide career transitional services for affected employees.

Those services include severance pay based on years of service, outplacement assistance including resume preparation, and interviewing skills, and job placement assistance with local employers.

“Retirement and pension planning services will also be provided for those employees not seeking re-employment. The company plans to work with state and federal dislocated worker agencies to provide additional benefits and services that may be available to employees,” the company said.

Brayton added “We are eternally grateful to all our employees for their years of dedication and loyalty to the company and our number one priority right now is to help affected employees through this transition. While this was a very difficult decision, our strategic approach to align our collections globally remains our primary focus and we are continuing the next stage of the globalization of the Woolrich brand.”

The company will maintain its wholesale, retail and e-commerce apparel businesses.

Brayton, meanwhile, said he still is working with Woolrich International’s chief executive officer, Paolo Corinaldesi, a consultant to former Woolrich owner, W.P. Lavori of Corso, Italy.

The only other two woolen mills in operation in the U.S. are the Pendelton Woolen Mill at Portland, Oregon, and the Faribault Woolen Mill in Faribault, Minn.

Pendelton has been a Woolrich competitor, producing blankets and like fabrics and clothing.

“Faribault is another venerable brand that has been around a long time,” Brayton said. “They recently reopened their mill after closing it for a few years.”

Faribault was founded in 1865 and is run by fifth generation family members.

The Woolrich mill produces blankets, throws and fabric “for our own use within our garments, as well as fabric for other, third-party private labels,” Brayton said.

Brayton expressed sadness for the local mills closing.

“We will now start to outsource our blankets domestically. We’re working with a few different parties and we’re optimistic to have continued quality and a very nice blanket line and other products moving forward.”

The Clinton County commissioners also responded to Woolrich’s announcement.

“Woolrich announced they will be closing their Woolrich woolen plant, just minutes before our meeting,” Commissioner Robert “Pete” Smeltz told The Express. “Full closure is expected by Dec. 31, 2018, but we have no information yet on how the buildings will be utilized, or how the retail store will be impacted.”

“It is a real kick in the gut. This company has been around for 150 plus years, and it looks like it is finally coming to an end. It is a shame. I guess as they say, the other certain thing in like is change, and that is where we are at here. Maybe it will bring about new opportunity, if someone out there has ideas on how to repurpose the buildings,” added Commissioner Paul Conklin said.

“They treated their employees well for 188 years,” said Commissioner Jeff Sydner. “Thankfully, First Quality and several of the employers in the area have lots of openings. Hopefully these employees can make that transition and relocate these workers.”

“Careerlink is already working to facilitate that,” Smeltz noted.

Another sad reaction to the closing came from Bill Bill Batchelder, president of Bemidji Woolen Mills in Bemidji, Minn.

Bemidji is among Woolrich’s oldest customers and has been affiliated with Woolrich since 1920. It purchases wool fabric from Woolrich for cutting, sewing and producing garments.

The Minnesota firm – its operation is 98 years running – has 10 employees.

Batchelder called the Woolrich mill closing “devastating.”

“Woolrich is rooted in American culture. We have the ultimate respect for Woolrich and we’re deeply saddened by the news of the mill’s closing,” he said.

Batchelder talked glowingly of past Woolrich executives with whom his firm worked, and said his company has always appreciated Woolrich’s flexibility in terms of the quantity of wool it was able to purchase.

“We wish there was another way. Woolrich is very important to us … and has been for generations,” Batchelder said.

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