Island Pond Woodworkers celebrate one year in business

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(Host) One year after it opened, an employee-owned furniture plant in Island Pond say it’s doing well. The company was started by a group of workers who lost their jobs when the town’s sole manufacturing plant shut down.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) For a full year now the machines at Island Pond Woodworkers have been running steadily.

(Terry Grondin) “We’ve got some really good equipment here. Some of the stuff we used to operate at Ethan Allen looked like it came over on Noah’s Ark.”

(Duane Powers) “No, it was the Mayflower!” (Laughs.)

(Zind) Terry Grondin, Duane Powers and the 13 other employees here once worked at the Ethan Allen Furniture until it closed its plant here two and a half years ago. Now they’re working in a new plant at the edge of the village. Over the past year they’ve been making library carols for Middlebury College, furniture for Dartmouth College and one of a kind custom orders, like a 18-foot long conference table for a Massachusetts firm.

Island Pond Woodworkers started with a plan to sell some of the furniture they made wholesale to other manufacturers. CEO Don Mailo says that plan changed when they discovered they couldn’t produce the kind of quality they wanted at wholesale prices. So now they’re marketing their own small line of home furnishings.

(Mailo) “Our quality standards are higher than a lot of the other manufacturers out there. I don’t know if you noticed any of the furniture that we’re producing now, but if you run your hand under the bottom of the table, you’ll find as good a finish on the bottom as you do on the top.”

(Zind) The furniture produced by Island Pond Woodworkers isn’t fancy. The pieces, mostly tables, are simple and sturdy, burnished with a range of natural finishes.

When it closed, Ethan Allen was the only manufacturing plant in the area, in a county with the highest unemployment rate in the state. Janice Fournier lost the job she’d had for eighteen years. She says she didn’t have much hope of finding work.

(Fournier) “Especially at my age. I knew there wasn’t too many that was going to hire somebody that was 61 years old.”

(Zind) Fournier and Patty Sink volunteered to help a group of former Ethan Allen employees who wanted to start their own company. Sink is a single mother of two. She took classes and drew unemployment, hoping that the new company would be successful enough to hire her. Six months ago she got the call to come to work.

(Sink) “I was absolutely, extremely excited. I couldn’t wait to get started. I was on unemployment and I was very happy to just be working again.”

(Zind) The jobs at Island Pond Woodworkers pay about $10 an hour. That’s not as much as Ethan Allen paid, but Terry Grondin is philosophical.

(Grondin) “They’re not yet, but that’s part of starting a business. You have to take the bad with the good sometimes.”

(Zind) Grondin is willing to wait for more money while the business grows. He expects he’ll eventually make more than he did at his old job. Gabe Lee says you have a different attitude about your job when you’re a part owner.

(Lee) “I think it changes the mentality a lot. It’s not just a nine to five job. Down the road this could really turn into something a lot of people could benefit from it.”

(Zind) Lee, who is 23, says he hopes to stay at the company until he retires. If he’s successful, he’ll be bucking a trend.

The number of people doing his kind of work in this country is declining. According to a recent study by the University of North Carolina, Chinese furniture products, many made under contracts with U.S. companies are flooding the market. Factory wages in China range from 50 cents to 75 cents an hour and overhead costs are low.

It’s Bruce Wilkie’s job to convince customers to buy furniture from Island Pond Woodworkers and not from overseas. Wilkie says the company keeps its profit margin low to compete. But his sales pitch is really about the quality of his products, the idea of supporting the rural economy and using wood that’s harvested using environmentally sound practices. Wilkie believes an increasing number of companies find those arguments convincing.

(Wilkie) “Eventually people are going to realize that when they’re buying product that’s made overseas, especially in China, that they’re buying into human rights violations, basically. And they’re also buying into raw material harvesting methods that are contrary to ecological standards.”

(Zind) The company has won nearly every bid it’s submitted and the list of clients has expanded into Massachusetts and Maine. If revenues continue on track, Island Pond Woodworkers expects to turn a profit this year – and hire more employees. Wilkie believes that someday the company can employ just as many people as worked in the Ethan Allen plant that stands idle outside of town.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Island Pond.

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