A view of Robbinsville, the home of Stanley Furniture, Graham County's largest employer, last April. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press

Company reps said to be visiting Robbinsville facility in coming days, weeks

Ann Higdon, owner of Inspirations from Nature in Robbinsville, waits on customer Bob Rudzik of Bryson City. Higdon worries about Robbinsville’s future with the pending closing of Stanley Furniture. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press
Ann Higdon, owner of Inspirations from Nature in Robbinsville, waits on customer Bob Rudzik, of Bryson City. Higdon worries about Robbinsville’s future with the pending closing of Stanley Furniture. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press

ROBBINSVILLE — Stanley Furniture employee Steve Pendergrass remains hopeful that a new owner will be found for the soon-to-be-closed Robbinsville plant.

His optimism comes from hearing that up to five companies, including industry giants Ashley Furniture and Pottery Barn, are interested in the facility.

“Three or four of them are coming in next week,” said Pendergrass, a repairman who is among the 400 workers who stand to lose their jobs after Stanley Furniture announced on April 1 it was closing the plant, which is Graham County’s largest employer.

“One out of five will surely be a good prospect,” the 49-year-old said from his mobile home, which sits in the shadows of the sprawling plant.

Previously: “In one WNC county, a jobs implosion.”

David Petersen, vice president of marketing for Stanley Furniture, said the High Point company is working on finding an owner but would not name any potential buyers.

“We are doing everything we can to find a suitor to run the facility and employ as many of our associates as possible,” Petersen said. “We are working on it. We know it’s very important for the community.”

Ashley Furniture Chairman and Founder Ron Wanek plans to visit Robbinsville on Wednesday or Thursday, said a spokesman for the Arcadia, Wis., furniture maker.

The spokesman did not want to elaborate on Ashley Furniture’s intentions, other than to say it wants to “kick the tires.” Ashley Furniture is the largest manufacturer of furniture in the world, with retail partners in 123 countries.

A view of Robbinsville, the home of Stanley Furniture, Graham County's largest employer. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press
A view of Robbinsville, which is home to a Stanley Furniture plant that Graham County’s largest employer. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press

The Stanley Furniture plant in Robbinsville makes Young America furniture designed to carry a child “from crib to college.” The company’s board of directors recently decided to close the facility, saying it was no longer profitable. The company will be accepting orders until April 28, but it does not have a firm closing date, Petersen said.

Pendergrass said he understands the closing is scheduled for June 1 and that options will be presented this week to employees on how to collect unemployment and gain retraining. Should the plant close, Pendergrass said he will have to leave Robbinsville to find work.

“I’m 49 years old. I just brought this trailer, which I won’t be able to sell,” he said. “I figured I would retire from here.”

Graham County Manager Greg Cable said he remains “cautiously optimistic” that Stanley Furniture will find an owner, but he also did not want to talk about what companies are interested in the facility.

“We are putting out there that we are looking for a potential buyer,” Cable said. “There does seem to be quite a bit of interest in the facility, so we are hopeful that there’s going to be someone coming in and continuing there.”

He believes the plant could be very conducive to continuing to make furniture.

“If you look at the scope of facilities in North Carolina, and probably the Southeast, most of those facilities are empty,” Cable said. “If you look here in Graham County and look at Stanley, you have a facility filled with a highly skilled, dedicated workforce. You have the machinery in place.”

Within the last five years, Stanley Furniture received a $1 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation on behalf of the county to purchase a piece of equipment to improve its efficiency. Cable said the company has met its related obligations.

“It created an avenue for Stanley Furniture to continue to operate and produce a higher-quality product at a more efficient pace,” he said. “Stanley became a better model that worked and stuck around.”

He noted the company pays $80,000 annually in personal and real property taxes.

Top Employers in Graham County, 2013

Cable called Stanley a good partner for Graham County and has been working diligently to get a new owner for the plant.

“My calendar was cleared when the announcement came in, and we have been very open and transparent,” he said. “People want to know how they can plan for the future.”

He also commented on how the news shocked the community.

“We found out the news on April 1,” Cable said. “After the stock market closed, we were able to sit down with the ownership. The bottom line was they couldn’t sell enough furniture. However, it had nothing to do with the work ethic of the people. They did everything they were asked.”

While Ann Higdon, owner of Inspirations from Nature, in Robbinsville, has heard about the interest by companies in the plant, she can’t help but wonder if they may have alternative motives.

“Ashley Furniture gives us hope, but, then again, maybe they are looking at the equipment for elsewhere,” said Higdon, whose gift shop includes local crafts, produce and baked goods.

Higdon, a Robbinsville native who, 12 years ago, returned home from after living in Atlanta, said she is normally optimistic. When it comes to the plant’s future, however, she is not.

“I’d be surprised. To get trucks in and out of here is a burden on drivers,” Higdon said, referring to lack of four-lane highways in the county.

Losing Stanley Furniture could crush businesses like hers, she said, which cater to tourist and locals.

“Families will have to leave,” Higdon said. “No one will go out to eat, and they will have to go on food stamps and government assistance. It takes a husband and wife working to survive.”

“If it was not for the tourists a few months out of the year, we would have to close,” she added.

Leonard Gladden, who said he worked for Stanley Furniture for 28 years without missing a day before being fired two years ago for a medical issue, is glad to see the company leaving and remains optimistic that another company will take over the plant.

Unable to work due to gout in his feet, Gladden said he lives off money his sister sends him. He remembers being paid $3.40 an hour when he started working for Stanley.

“My last three years, I got up to $12 an hour. I thought I was rich and planned to retire (from Stanley),” the 53-year-old said.

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Gwen Albers is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact her at galbers_reporter@yahoo.com.

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