Officials seek ways to avoid Rohr closure

June 21, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Each day, some 200 workers go to work at BF Goodrich north of Hagerstown, but the clock is rapidly ticking down.

The plant, formerly owned by Rohr Inc., is the last vestige of the once-dominant airplane manufacturing industry in Washington County. The company traces its origins to Fairchild Industries, which closed in the 1980s.

But soon, Rohr will be a memory, too. BF Goodrich Aerospace/Aerostructures Group, which acquired Rohr in 1997, announced last December that it would close the plant in June. Although the shutdown date has been pushed back to July, company officials said they plan to lay off about a third of the work force on June 25.

State and county economic development officials are desperately trying to help BF Goodrich find a buyer for the plant, which makes airplane components. Landing a buyer would keep the plant going, potentially saving hundreds of jobs.


Thomas B. Riford, marketing director at the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said he is mindful that the decision affects about 200 families.

"It's personal. I wish that this whole effort went a little quicker," he said.

The sales pitch

BF Goodrich officials have said their top priority is finding another company to purchase the plant on Showalter Road near Hagerstown Regional Airport. To that end, it hired Colliers-International, a Toronto-based firm.

Working with state and local economic development officials, Colliers has contacted firms in the aerospace industry and has fielded calls from other kinds of companies inquiring about space.

Ron Jasinski, Colliers' director of corporate services, said the firm has been going "full-bore to find a buyer."

The sales pitch is based on what officials view as its key strengths, including:

- A good facility. The Rohr plant is 435,000 square feet and some of the equipment was purchased three or four years ago, Riford said.

"It's a great find. It's a rarity," he said.

- Location. Economic development officials are stressing the easy access to Interstate 81 and Hagerstown Regional Airport. The ideal use for the plant would be a similar aircraft manufacturer, but Riford said other uses are possible.

"It could work for just about any kind of manufacturing," he said.

But the greatest asset, according to the company and economic development officials, is the work force.

The plant's union helped management compile an inventory of the employees' skills and experiences. One union member said the work force has an average of 22 or 23 years of experience.

Transferring ownership before, or shortly after BF Goodrich pulls out would allow a new company to inherit highly trained employees.

"The work force is already in place. It would be the path of least resistance," Riford said.

Jasinski said that is extremely attractive during the current booming economy, in which employers are struggling to find qualified workers.

"One of the difficulties for a lot of employers, now that unemployment in the United States is so low, is that it's just as difficult finding a good work force as finding good buildings," he said.

Familiar road

While many employees would like to see an 11th-hour buyer save their jobs, some said realization that the chances are remote is beginning to sink in.

"Several people have talked to me about other opportunities. My plans are ultimately to retire," said General Manager Philip J. Vacca.

Jim Slayman, a BF Goodrich employee and a member of the United Auto Workers Union Local 842, said workers at the plant did not panic when they heard the news. He said many took comfort from the happy outcome of two previous near closings.

When Fairchild left in 1987, Rohr stepped in to fill the void. In 1994, when Rohr decided to close the plant, the union helped convince management that it made sense to keep it open.

"You get to thinking you're like a cat with nine lives, but you're afraid to start counting how many you've used," Slayman said.

Jay Howe, who was plant manager when Fairchild owned the facility and later general manager under Rohr, recalled earlier efforts to save the factory.

Having closed its main plant in 1983, Fairchild was experiencing financial problems in the mid-1980s. Howe said the Hagerstown workers were dependent on the parent company in Long Island, N.Y., for work.

As plant manager, Howe said he and union leaders hatched a plan in 1987 under which the workers agreed to an 8 1/2 percent pay cut and other concessions. With this capital, Fairchild officials allowed the Hagerstown facility to generate its own business.

The first contract local officials won was to build a plane for Rohr.

"That was such a positive experience for them that they very quickly gave us four or five other proposals to bid," said Howe, who now lives in Chambersburg, Pa.

Later that year, Rohr bought the plant from Fairchild.

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