By ED BARNA Correspondent BRANDON — Three days before Vermont Tubbs had to be sold or closed, a group of investors announced Friday that they were purchasing the furniture manufacturing company and continue operating it in Brandon. The company will still do business as Vermont Tubbs, but the owner of that name is now Vermont Quality Wood Products, LLC. Carris Financial Holdings, owned by William Carris of Rutland, had been the previous owner. The new group, led by Jon McNeill of Waitsfield, purchased all Vermont Tubbs’ assets, except the 132,000-square-foot factory in Brandon’s business park. The building has been leased, McNeill said, so the company can keep operating, pending the purchase of the facility within 45 days. “Gov. (James) Douglas has been very helpful,” McNeill said. The governor’s work made sure this was a top priority for the Department of Economic Development, the Vermont Economic Development Authority and the U. S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, McNeill said, adding that Douglas made good on his campaign promise to promote job creation. Carris had been told by his principal lender that he could no longer keep subsidizing Vermont Tubbs with money from Carris Reels, his main enterprise, which had seen its cable spool sales hit by the decline of the telecommunications industry. Though Carris had brought in Lee Houston, a veteran furniture industry executive with a track record of turning around unprofitable companies, the increased efficiencies at the Brandon factory had not been enough to counteract the declining sales of a prolonged national economic slump. Specializing in high-end hardwood furniture, particularly bedroom sets, Tubbs had more than 600 accounts in 2000, including major retailers like L. L. Bean and Crate & Barrel. Sales peaked at $16 million for that year, and employment reached a high of 255. That dropped to $14.7 million by 2002, according to company information, and there was another 20 percent drop this year. The cause, a press release said, was a “decrease in the furniture business and dumping from China.” Employment declined to about 140 by the spring, and slumped even further as people uncertain of the plant’s future left for other jobs. McNeill said he did not know the current number of employees, but it was probably below 120. Despite the problems encountered by Vermont Tubbs, there was still interest in acquiring the company, which Houston has said was in itself unusual in the current furniture industry climate. A half-dozen potential buyers went through the plant, and one deal put together by Rutland lawyer William Meub almost succeeded in meeting Carris’ financial requirements. Houston said the general pall cast over the furniture industry by the Chinese taking over 40 percent of the market was discouraging lenders from backing what he regarded as a good company with a sound future. But now a team effort by KeyBank, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Rural Development program, and a combination of Vermont and outside investors has kept Tubbs from joining the list of manufacturing businesses lost to the state. “Despite months of speculation about the company’s survival, Vermont Tubbs will continue operations at its state-of-the-art facility in Brandon,” said a release Friday from the new partnership. McNeill was quoted as saying, “Vermont Tubbs’ proud history began 163 years ago, and we are thrilled to continue designing and building our high-quality, unique solid wood furniture that is sold by the nation’s top retailers. “This company has just needed financial stability,” he went on. “It’s a great brand, a vibrant team of employees and has an amazingly strong customer base.” “It is our aim to preserve this company, save jobs and provide a strong future for our people,” said Fred Musone, new head of manufacturing and operations at Vermont Tubbs. “The quality and commitment of the people who work for Tubbs is just impressive. They are resilient and committed. We are excited about becoming a part of this team.” Musone brings strong credentials for a turnaround, according to the release. Formerly president of Morton International and chief operating officer of Federal Mogul, he is a “nationally recognized expert in lean manufacturing and the Toyota production system,” the release said. McNeill is the founder and CEO of First Notice Systems Inc., the founder and CEO of Sterling Collision Centers Inc. and a management consultant with Bain & Co. In an interview, McNeill said his group specializes in creating and turning around businesses. Its main project in the past five years was a company that now operates nationally, having gone from zero to about 1,200 employees, he said. Houston “did a remarkable job of improving the operations at Vermont Tubbs,” McNeill said in the partnership’s release Friday. “We start on a much stronger foundation thanks to Lee’s leadership.” Houston’s employment at the Tubbs plant stopped two weeks ago, but he stayed on to help with the sale. He said he had never worked with a finer group of employees. “Now a group of capable investors sees Tubbs’ potential. I am delighted that this has happened,” he said. McNeill credited “a strong team effort” with making the purchase possible. He named Commissioner of Economic Development Michael Quinn, KeyBank official Tony Martin, Rural Development’s David Robinson, and the Vermont Economic Development Authority’s Steven Greenfield with playing major roles. Loan guarantees, not tax credits, were the key for KeyBank, McNeill said. Greenfield, VEDA’s deputy manager, said two guarantees were involved. For an initial $2 million loan, Rural Development had backed 90 percent, and VEDA 5 percent. VEDA’s rules require some bank commitment, he said. That did not mean the price for Tubbs was $2 million, because some of the money was for operations, Greenfield said. McNeill declined to name the purchase price. Also, Greenfield said, there was a $300,000 line of credit for seasonal or exceptional costs, which VEDA guaranteed. Jolinda LaClair, state director at Rural Development, said the Tubbs loan guarantee was a substantial portion of the $14 million in guarantees it had made this year. The loss of Tubbs would have meant “a very big difference in term of revenues for the region,” she said. McNeill also credited the efforts of Meub and his son to save the Tubbs plant from closing. “This wouldn’t have happened without the persistence of two people, Bill Meub and (his son) Conrad Meub,” McNeill said. “For months they have worked to put a business plan together and find investors who could turn this business around. “They never gave up,” McNeill said. “To a large extent these jobs are owed to their efforts.” Brandon town officials also greeted Friday’s news with enthusiasm. “I think it’s wonderful,” said Lynn Saunders, chairwoman of the Brandon Select Board. “That’s a lot of jobs. The employment prospects (for people out of work) are not good.” The board would “absolutely” consider tax stabilization to help the new partnership make Vermont Tubbs viable, Saunders said. “We’d be happy to help out.”

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