The second iteration of the company employs about 250 people during its peak manufacturing times in the spring and late fall. It’s not quite the roughly 600 employed at the manufacturing plant before the company was forced into bankruptcy in 2009, when it was the largest employer in Randolph County.
But the wrought iron outdoor furniture manufacturer remains one of the largest employers in Wadley 22 months after an Atlanta-based company purchased bankrupt Meadowcraft’s assets in the city.
It is inextricably tied to the town’s health and vibrancy, Mayor Jim Dabbs said. Meadowcraft may not be as large a force in the town, the county and the nation as it once was. But its existence improves the town and gives hope that Wadley can weather the poor economy.
“The shutdown, the bankruptcy, was devastating to the town,” he said. “It means its life.”
Meadowcraft’s business grew between 30 and 35 percent in the first full year Wadley Holding, LLC, operated the company, said Gene Crouch, general manager. The Montgomery-based company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Southern Sales & Marketing Group, the Atlanta parent company.
Business is expected to grow an additional 35 percent in the coming year, Crouch said. The customer base is expected to grow and Crouch said the company plans to begin manufacturing about 80 percent of the cushions it uses on its products.
“Mom-and-pop shops” are Meadowcraft’s largest customers, Crouch said. The company has yet to regain the contracts with big box stores such as Walmart and Home Depot that helped make the original company the nation’s largest purveyor of wrought iron outdoor furniture. Crouch attributes this mainly to competition from China and a weak economy, stressing that when Americans buy, they should to buy American-made products.
Meadowcraft hasn’t made cushions since Wadley Holdings began operating the Meadowcraft factory in October 2009, seven months after the company was forced into bankruptcy by its leading lenders.
The lenders, led by Wells Fargo & Co., filed suit in October 2010 against members of Meadowcraft’s senior management, whom the complainants allege defrauded the company through a slew of fraudulent financial practices.
At the end of June, federal prosecutors charged former chief financial officer Larry Maynor with wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Maynor agreed to plead guilty to the charges the same day, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Birmingham.
“It just kind of takes the breath out of people trying to do it the right way,” Marla Webb said of the charge.
Webb helps her parents operate Stephens Station, a convenience store and gas station on the right side of Alabama 22 as it winds toward Alexander City.
Foot traffic there is less than half of what it was before the plant closed in 2009, she said. They’re holding on but have been walking the fine line between holding on and going under for long enough that Webb can see a point where hanging on isn’t an option.
She feels good about the new management at the Meadowcraft facility, though, and hopes that it and the economy can turn around in time to help both the manufacturer and her family’s convenience store recover.
Right now there are about 80 employees working at the plant, Crouch said. June, July and August are slow months in the outdoor furniture business, where the focus is on delivery rather than manufacturing.
Before Meadowcraft started laying off for the summer, business along Main Street was good, said Michael Barnes, owner of K B Coffee and a SouthernLINC franchise, both just up the hill from the Meadowcraft plant.
“You can tell they’re here,” Barnes said.
Barnes opened up the SouthernLINC store about six months before Meadowcraft was forced into bankruptcy. Before the plant closed, business was good enough for him to drop a SouthernLINC store in west Georgia to focus on the Wadley store.
After the plant shut down, four businesses also closed their doors. One restaurant on the west side of Main Street shut down and then another burned down.
It was like a “zombie town” before the plant was bought and re-opened, Barnes said.
The Meadowcraft factory’s re-opening improved business downtown such that last August, Barnes opened K B Coffee next door to the SouthernLINC store. Almost a year later, Barnes said the business is “hoping to hang on” through the summer months while employment at Meadowcraft is down. He said again that business downtown ebbs and flows with the number of people working at Meadowcraft, echoing Webb’s sentiments.
“When they’re here, we can tell. It’s a big part of our business,” he said.
Meadowcraft’s return affected residents beyond giving them a new place to eat in town. The manufacturer wanted to use two paint lines in the plant, but Wadley’s water system did not have the water pressure to allow it, Mayor Dabbs said.
The town was able to secure a million-dollar grant to upgrade the system. Workers are still putting the finishing touches on the upgrade. But water pressure is already more than double what it once was, allowing the town to use its second water tower to provide running water to half the town’s population without operating mechanical generators, Dabbs said. He expects the project to be completed by the end of the summer.
The grant also paid for revamping the sewer system, which is no longer in danger of flooding during heavy rains, the mayor said.
The town did have to pay a price to get the company back, offering to suspend ad valorem taxes if the plant was purchased and re-opened, Dabbs said. It resulted in a loss of about $17,000 a year in tax money, roughly 3 percent of Wadley’s $500,000 annual budget, Dabbs said.
“We did take a hit,” Dabbs said. “But it’s not as bad as if it had not opened again.”
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546