Commerce Corp., a Maryland-based distributor of lawn and garden supplies, said Thursday it is laying off some employees as it seeks to find a buyer or develop a new format.

CEO Richard Lessans said the privately held company is still trying to determine how many of its 280 employees nationwide will be laid off. Commerce is based in Curtis Bay and has facilities in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Ontario, Calif. Some sales staff were told they were laid off.

"The business is not closing," Lessans said. "Someone will be answering the phones every single day. We are looking at many options for the future of the business."

One of those options is to find a buyer for the business launched by Israel Lessans — the grandfather of the current CEO — and his three brothers in 1923 at the corner of Pratt and Commerce streets in Baltimore. Originally an electrical wholesale supply business, the company shifted into housewares and hardware after World War II, and later focused on distributing lawn and garden supplies to many independent garden centers, according to its website.

The company expanded by acquiring lawn and garden distributors in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Michigan and New England.

"Our industry has been going through consolidation," said Greg Draiss, manager of an independent garden center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who also blogs about the industry.

Commerce is the largest lawn and garden supplies distributor on the East Coast, with annual sales estimated at $200 million to $500 million, Draiss said. Its closest competitor is only half the size of Commerce, he said.

Richard Lessans, who joined the family business in 1970, would not elaborate on the cause of Commerce's financial difficulties, other than saying it's not just a result of the weak economy. "It's not that simple," he said.

But the distributor's problems appear to have been going on for months.

Jim Wurz, the president of Bonide Products Inc., a maker of insect- and weed-control products, sent a letter to customers this month saying his company had been working diligently since June to establish credit terms with Commerce without success. As a result, Wurz wrote, Bonide did not send millions of dollars of merchandise to Commerce warehouses, and he advised customers to find another distributor.

"While we remain hopeful that a viable Commerce will exist in some form, and we desire to support that entity once it presents itself, that is going to take some time," Wurz wrote. Bonide did not return calls seeking comment.

True Value Co. also notified retailers this month that the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. was no longer supplying Commerce with products, and that True Value could fill the gap. Scotts declined to comment.

Carl Sallese, owner of three Ann Marie's Hallmark stores in Baltimore, is one of Commerce's customers. He ordered merchandise in the fall and said he will wait to hear from Commerce whether it will fill that order.

"We certainly want a secure source of supply," Sallese said.

Commerce is known for its elaborate annual dinner for vendors, added Sallese, who attended last year. He said the dinner was held at an Inner Harbor restaurant with musical group Earth, Wind & Fire as the featured entertainment: .

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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