W.A. Brown workers: Little warning of shutdown
By Shelley Smithssmith@salisburypost.com
A century-old Salisbury business has closed its doors, putting nearly 100 people out of work.
W.A. Brown & Son, which specialized in commercial coolers and freezers since 1910, shut down operations Friday, according to a letter given to employees.
No one returned a message left at the company’s offices Tuesday. Neither Paul Brown, vice president and general manager of the company, nor Ed Brown, president, could be reached Tuesday.
The letter given to W.A. Brown employees said the company’s closing is “expected to be permanent” and blamed an inability to secure financing to keep the business going.
The letter, dated Nov. 6, which was also posted on the front door at W.A. Brown’s 209 Long Meadow Drive plant Tuesday, says employees were told of the closing “as soon as practicable.”
“The Company has been actively seeking continued financing resources which would have prevented the need for this layoff and the Company believed that earlier notice would have jeopardized these negotiations,” the letter says. “These negotiations appeared to have broken down last night, and we have been unable to locate other sources to continue funding the plant’s operations.
“… We deeply regret that this action has become unavoidable and thank you for your past service,” the letter concludes.
The company parking lot was nearly empty Tuesday afternoon. The front door was locked. Though people could be seen inside, no one in the offices answered the door.
“They sent everyone a letter Monday,” said Roy Sifford, a maintenance worker at W.A. Brown. When asked if he or other employees had any advance warning of the closing, Sifford said, “Not really.”
“The only people in there right now are office personnel,” said Sifford Tuesday afternoon, as he locked the main entrance door behind him. “Everyone’s cleaning out their desks.”
W.A. Brown notified the N.C. Employment Security Commission of the closing and job losses Friday, said Debbie Davis, manager of the state agency’s local office.
“They are asking us to treat it as a permanent layoff,” Davis said. “That was a surprise. They’ve been there a long time.”
One former W.A. Brown employee who didn’t want to give his name said he and some other employees suspected the company would close.
“They had a safety dinner for us last Tuesday,” he said. “But we felt like it was a farewell dinner, and sort of knew it’d be the last time we’d be together.
“I guess they did the best they could. I know they tried other options and went in different directions to try to make things work for the company.
“Some people were taking volunteer layoffs for three or four weeks at a time, and some were using their personal days and sick time to make up for the lost time in 40-hour weeks,” he said.
That employee said he visited the Employment Security Commission but fell short of qualifying for any benefits.
“When you work almost 30 years and pay your taxes, it’s bad when you’re left out,” he said. “Everyone needs help these days. They (W.A. Brown & Son) haven’t given us any information about our health coverage, either.”
It was also unclear Tuesday whether workers would receive their retirement benefits or be paid for the vacation leave they had accrued.
Before its closing Friday, W.A. Brown was the oldest privately held commercial walk-in cooler and freezer manufacturer in the nation, serving schools, hospitals, restaurants, supermarkets and many other commercial food service applications.
The business originated out of its founders’ own need for a better way to store and display meat.
In 1901, W.A. Brown opened a fish market in Salisbury. In 1908 he expanded that market to include fresh meat. Brown soon found that he needed more efficient meat display cases, and that led to his founding what would become a very successful walk-in cooler and freezer manufacturer, W.A. Brown & Son.
The company’s refrigeration units for grocery stores became so popular that markets across the South based their size and shape on the configuration of W.A. Brown & Son refrigeration units. The company also developed the first refrigerated shelves and check-out counters, very similar to those in today’s grocery stores.
In the late 1950s, W.A. Brown & Son built a refrigeration unit specially designed for the military. The unit tested aircraft and radar equipment and was the coldest unit ever built by W.A. Brown & Son, refrigerating at 80 degrees below zero.
W.A. Brown & Son provided coolers and other products across the nation and around the world to restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, schools, convenience stores and casinos in Las Vegas, and it also provided more than 50 walk-in coolers for the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, Ga.
In the 1970s, the company began making electrical controls for its products. It later made that a seperate division, which it sold in 2001.
In 2000, the company began making structural insulated panels for use in construction.
At one time, the company employed nearly 200 people.
Davis, the Employment Security Commission director, said W.A. Brown was not required to issue a WARN Act notice, which would have given employees advance notice of the closing. That’s because of the size of its workforce, which Davis said numbered 98.
“We’re working with the employees on their unemployment benefits. We have some training programs available if they need them to get the skills to return to work more quickly,” Davis said. “We’re encouraging folks to come in and meet with us and get things started.”
Davis said the training is available under the Workforce Reinvestment Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In conjunction with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, the agency offers programs that can be completed in six months.