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W.A. Brown: Deal to save plant fell through

By Shelley Smithssmith@salisburypost.com
The fall of century-old W.A. Brown & Son has everything to do with the economy, owners said, but the ultimate jab came late last week.
“A merger was our direction up through last Friday,” said Paul Brown, vice president and general manager. “It was to be a growth opportunity for employees and both businesses involved. It would have given us a better territory for distribution of our products.”
The merger, which had been planned since May, was to be with a company in the western United States ó but that outfit changed plans late Friday afternoon.
“The merging company changed the ball game,” said president Edward (Ed) A. Brown.
Paul Brown said merger talks were not a total surprise to the employees, and upper management for W.A. Brown had known about it since May but were under strict confidentiality agreements not to talk about it.
Paul Brown said if the news got out, it could have damaged any potential plans. Officials from the western company visited W.A. Brown every two or three weeks.
“We’re not comfortable with the way everything had to take place,” said Paul Brown, who added he was floored when he got the news.
“I got the same letter they got,” Ed Brown said of the letter sent to employees about failed financial resources.
“Our market has gone from new, complete equipment to replacement parts and pieces,” said Paul Brown. “Businesses, for example restaurants, are making improvements elsewhere, usually in the appearance of the restaurant, and not in the kitchen.”
He also noted some large projects were changed because of customers’ lack of promised stimulus money, a hurdle that W.A. Brown had no control over.
“We had one successful bid, which needed 100 units,” Paul Brown said. But when the amount of stimulus money became clear, 100 units dropped to only six.
“We were counting on it, and it would have been a great opportunity,” he said
Paul Brown said other interested parties have contacted them, “and we are pursuing those possible mergers very actively.”
But he said that if a future merger happens, the structure of the business and number of employees could change.
“Our goal would be to put everything back in place and to keep everyone here,” he said. “Our facility here is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, and we would like to be able to offer growth opportunities for employees and the business as a whole.
“Rowan is a good place to live and work, and has great growth opportunities. We’ve got to figure out where we play a part in the puzzle.”
Paul Brown said the company’s employees were their “greatest asset.”
“We are trying to be very upfront with our employees and talk to them about the changes,” he said. “We called all employees, and all week long we’ve been more than happy to help them with anything they may need, and allowed them to come by and pick up any belongings.”
Employees have also been able to access their 401k retirement plans.
“All of those funds are self directed,” said Brown.
He said employees have taken the news as well as possible.
“They have always been beneficial to not only our company, but to the community, as well,” Brown said. “We’ve always encouraged them to develop relationships with other companies, learning and training, and meeting different people. We’ve always tried to be openly associated with other companies.
“If we help promote Salisbury and Rowan County, we help promote all businesses.”
Employees visited W.A. Brown on Thursday afternoon to pick up their final checks and any personal belongings. Kind words, hugs and smiles were exchanged all around.
Randy Hoffner, who had worked at W.A. Brown for 25 years, called his time with the company “great.”
“It’s such a good place to work, bottom line,” he said.
Frank Preolette had only been with the company for three years. But he hated to say goodbye.
“I’ve worked with excellent people and excellent owners,” Preolette said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and everyone I’ve worked with.”
Vivian Kinter had been there for 30 years.
“The people were just like family,” she said. “Everyone has been here so long.”
Dennis Brown, who had been with the company for 15 years, called himself Ed Brown’s “long lost grandson.”
“He probably is,” Ed Brown joked.

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