KINSTON — The coronavirus has forced businesses in almost every sector of the economy to at least temporarily shift their employees to working remotely. The transition has been easier on certain groups like technology and legal services, but for those in the manufacturing industry where assembly lines are central to operations, working remotely is nearly impossible.
Back in March, local officials across the country shut down many non-essential factories, but ever since then tensions have been steadily rising as factory furloughs have become permanent closings. Scared of losing ground to his competition in the auto industry, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made headlines last week when he dared authorities to arrest him and threatened to move his lone U.S. factory in Fremont, CA to Detroit in order to resume operations. The factory produces Tesla’s Model 3, Model S, Model X and Model Y cars, and employs more than 10,000 people.
Even before COVID-19 the harsh reality was that the industrial workforce has been shrinking as a share of the overall U.S. economy for years. While manufacturing output last year exceeded a previous peak back in 2007, factory employment never returned to pre-financial crisis levels. The fallout has hit particularly close to home as one of Kinston’s top employers, Lenox China Manufacturing, closed its eastern North Carolina plant on April 29 leaving roughly 175 employees without jobs.
Lenox, which is headquartered in Bristol, PA is a leading designer and marketer of dinnerware, flatware, glassware, kitchen and giftware and markets its products under the Lenox, Dansk, and Reed & Barton labels. In addition to its core brands, Lenox makes and distributes Kate Spade New York, Marchesa by Lenox, and Brian Gluckstein by Lenox. Its products can be found in department stores, gift and specialty retailers, and general merchandise chains, as well as through its own retail stores and consumer-direct channels, like the Internet and catalogs. It has the distinction of being the first American dinnerware used at the White House.
“It has been a very difficult decision to decide to close the factory. It is closing a chapter in Lenox’s long and illustrious history as an American manufacturer of fine dinnerware products,” Lenox CEO, Mads Ryder told WITN news. Ryder emphasized that, with more than 130 years of business behind them they would remain strong and continue designing and developing the well-known heritage patterns in America. “These achievements were only made possible by the competent, dedicated and proud team of the Kinston factory,” he added.
Lenox actually moved into the first Shell Building that Lenoir County built in 1989. It was originally 20,000 square feet, and as it sits today is 255,000 square feet. The factory has seen several expansions since they first began. The company is famous for its innovative and unique manufacturing capabilities, including hand-enameled dots, etching techniques and microwave-safe metals. The Kinston factory produced nine of Lenox’s top ten patterns and could produce 15,000 to 20,000 pieces of fine china daily.
It is inevitable that during a health crisis consumers would tighten their belts and stop spending on nonessential items like fine serve ware. The International Monetary Fund forecasts the world economy will shrink by 3% this year and U.S. consumer spending in March logged its largest monthly decline on record. This, coupled with the fact that fewer young adults are registering for fine china when they get married, may have played a small role in Lenox’s decision.
However according to Keely Koonce, interim director for the Lenoir County Economic Development Office, Kinston’s Lenox location was doing incredibly well right before the pandemic struck, having hosted the region’s Manufacturers Association meeting in October, and also a Presidential China event in February. “Sure, millennials seem to be less tied to these more formal traditions [when it comes to owning fine china]. But I would be totally remiss if I said we saw any earlier warning signs about this happening,” she said. “Lenox has been a very active partner in our community, since their creation. I am so very sad they are leaving…they truly are one of our most dedicated and appreciated beacons in our community.”
Koonce says there was very little turnover at their Kinston facility which speaks to the fact that these workers loved their jobs. “Each time I visited, they all had smiles on their faces and were happy to be at work-not to mention they were a very talented group of people!”
In press interviews, Kinston mayor Don Hardy, said it is undoubtedly a big loss for the community and for the employees. “It’s gonna be a very, very tough time for those that are going to look for jobs, especially those who had been there 20+ years,” he said. Most employees are applying for unemployment benefits related to the coronavirus.
Jeff Turner, former vice chair of the Lenoir County Economic Development Commission and a key player on the team that originally lured Lenox to Kinston said there would be a huge hole in the community with the departure of Lenox. “Every job is so important to eastern North Carolina and it was a great relationship we had with Lenox. They came and opened up and have been a great provider of good jobs for our region for years. They will be missed.”
He did say the company had a bit of economic trouble back in 2008 when the financial crisis forced people to change their spending habits. Nonetheless they were an icon Turner said, citing a popular TV commercial where an engaged couple says to one another “I’ll get the license, you get the Lenox.”
Social distancing guidelines have forced factories nationwide to shut their doors. COVID-19 outbreaks have affected multiple employees at meat and poultry plants as Tyson Foods announced it will temporarily limit operations at its Wilkesboro plant. Caterpillar is considering closing plants in Germany, Polaris Inc. which makes boats and motorcycles plans to close a plant in Syracuse, IN., and Goodyear Tire will close its operation in Gadsden, AL. It is understandable, seeing as how these workers put themselves in harm’s way just by reporting to the assembly line floor, but it leaves many asking what the future holds for the manufacturing sector.
Lenoir County’s workforce is 26% manufacturing, which illustrates how important manufacturing and training is to the region. Koonce says the Lenox facility is already for sale and has actually been shown a couple of times since the announcement. Lenoir Community College’s Workforce Development program is a nearby resource that allows employees to re-skill or receive new training as they consider alternative careers. “We work very closely with LCC trying to match students to careers,” Koonce says.
In addition, the Lenoir County Economic Development Office has been working with area businesses and manufacturers that need additional employees during this time, and the HR departments have been proactive in trying to hire former Lenox workers. Koonce says she is thankful for Lenoir’s Manufacturers Association in a time like this, because it connects these employers and their resources to one another.
“Eastern N.C. is a very resilient region, and we have been dealt many different difficult situations in the past, with hurricanes, etc.,” Koonce said. “However, for the most part our residents fight hard to make a comeback and always do.”