KREAMER — Wood-Mode LLC is gearing up to begin producing custom cabinets in the Kreamer plant next week and company officials expect to employ about 150 by the end of September.

Nearly all of the former Wood-Mode Inc. employees invited to work in the new plant under owner Middleburg businessman Bill French have agreed to return, said Bob Gessner, manufacturing manager, and Rod Hunter, general manager.

Among the 35 or so employees now working at the plant that was closed abruptly after 77 years on May 13 when former owners Robert and Brooks Gronlund failed to find a buyer or secure another loan are longtime employees Paul Hitesman and Mike Brosius. Also back at the plant are younger workers, like Kerri Brouse, who was employed at Wood-Mode Inc. for less than two years.

"I loved my job," said Brouse, whose father, Leon Knepp, is also returning to work for French.

"I spent 33 years there and it was great to see some of the people that I worked with," said Brosius. "It's going to take some time but I really believe it will be successful."

"It's exciting," said Hitesman, a former trainer who now works in human resources. "Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of challenges but we have an opportunity to resurrect the dead. I know that sounds dramatic, but that's what it is."

Gessner and Hunter, both veteran Wood-Mode Inc. employees, are well aware of the challenges.

After making sure the idled equipment was thoroughly cleaned and in good working order the pair set out to change the workplace culture that helped doom the former company that employed 938 employees when it shut down last spring.

"We are changing the philosophy of how we do business. The old company wanted to be everything to everybody. From now on it's best-business practices all the way," said Gessner. "The brand is tarnished in the industry, but it's still strong."

Most unused product will be repurposed, supplies will be ordered as-needed and plant employees will perform multiple tasks while working a four-day, 10-hour a day work week.

Gessner assured vendors that French has purchased only the Wood-Mode assets, not the debt, which remains with the Gronlunds.  He also assured employees, dealers, vendors and representatives that the Gronlunds are not involved in the new company.

Only four of the former company's 600 dealers have declined to do business with Wood-Mode LLC and most of the representatives are also back on board, said Hunter. 

Gessner said the company was close to being liquidated before French signed the deal to purchase the company assets.

Cabinets and other products that were left on the factory floor would have ended up in the trash. "It would have cost one-half million dollars to haul it to a landfill," he said.

Orders that are still wanted by dealers and customers will be completed and the remaining product will be repurposed.

Hunter said French aims to steadily build the new company and has stuck by the initial offer made when he showed up at Wood-Mode Inc.'s doorstep on May 14, the day after it's sudden closure.

"He knocked on the door, handed out his business card and said 'What can I do to save jobs?'" Hunter recalled. "He's been pursuing that ever since."

Gessner, 64, said he agreed to help French build the new company even though he could have retired.

"I worked at Wood-Mode for 43 years. (Walking away from a failed company) was not going to be my legacy," he said.

Others, like Brosius and Hitesman, are happy for the opportunity to be part of the new company producing a familiar product.

"A lot of folks are saying it's good to be home," said Hitesman.


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