Last Campbell's plant in Md. closing


CHESTERTOWN -- For 22 years, Emma Lively has worked at the Campbell Soup Co. plant here, going to work at 5:45 a.m. to separate chicken meat from the bone on an assembly line.

Yesterday morning, she and 239 other employees got bad news: The poultry processing plant two miles outside of town will close Sept. 1, part of a consolidation effort by Campbell.

The closing marks Campbell's departure from Maryland, although not from the Delmarva Peninsula -- a Millsboro, Del., plant makes pickles -- and follows by less than two years the closing of a company plant in Salisbury. At one time, Campbell had four plants in Maryland, including one in Crisfield and one in Pocomoke City.

"It was a job. Everybody got along there," Miss Lively said yesterday as she washed her clothes in a local coin laundry. Like other employees, she was sent home for the day after the closing was announced in the morning. "It's just one of those things. It happened in Salisbury, so . . . "

Chestertown Mayor Margo G. Bailey was less sanguine about the loss of one of the town's largest employers.

"This plant has been here for 35 years," she said. "It has been the backbone for a lot of people who didn't have special skills. It employed a lot of minority people. It was a company that hired people who didn't have a lot of skills and let them advance -- people who were good workers."

Campbell's 240 employees represent a significant part of the area's work force: Chestertown has about 4,000 residents and Kent County about 18,000. Because most of the workers come from Kent County, the impact will be felt

locally, Mrs. Bailey said. "My heart is just broken because I know these people."

Campbell decided to close the Chestertown operation, which opened in 1960, for reasons of efficiency, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Hanlin, one of the few people at the plant yesterday afternoon.

"It's just a business decision -- a manufacturing issue," she said. She had come down for the day from the company's world headquarters in Camden, N.J.

"We have four plants processing poultry, all running one shift [a day]," she said. The company decided it would be more efficient to run just two plants with two shifts each day instead, she said.

Campbell makes everything from the soup in its famous red-and-white cans to Swanson frozen dinners and Prego spaghetti sauce. It also owns the Pepperidge Farm cookie company and Vlasic pickles. It reported earnings of $630 million on sales of $6.7 billion in 1994. The average wage for employees at the Chestertown plant was $8.60 an hour, Ms. Hanlin said, nearly double the minimum wage.

Employees did not appear to be surprised by the company's decision, although none said they knew about it in advance of yesterday's meeting.

"They put a notice on the board that 'we have a very special meeting' and we had to come back at 9 a.m.," said Ronald Turner, 47, who has worked at the plant for almost 29 years. He operates machinery that separates the water from the chicken stock, he said.

"I knew it was coming but I didn't know it would be this soon," he said. "It's a good job, a good plant -- treat you right."

Mr. Turner, Miss Lively and fellow employee Earl Shaffer, 52, a maintenance-storeroom supervisor who's been at the plant for 15 years, plan to look for other jobs. But none expressed confidence in job prospects in the area.

State employment figures are not encouraging. The unemployment rate in Kent County in February, the most recent month for which statistics were available, was 7.3 percent, compared with a statewide average of 5.1 percent, according to the Department of Economic and Employment Development.

"The blow to us is having another company leaving in less than a year. . . . It has a ripple effect," Mrs. Bailey said. A paper supply company left last year, taking 300 jobs, she said. "They left for the same reason Campbell's is leaving -- downsizing."

James T. Brady, the state's economic development secretary, said he was not told of the Campbell closing until 11:30 a.m. yesterday, about 2 1/2 hours after employees got the news.

By then, Mr. Brady said, it was too late for the state to do anything other than offer help to employees in obtaining new jobs.

The secretary said he received a call several days ago from a Baltimore lawyer who wanted to bring clients to meet with him to discuss a plant closing. The lawyer would identify neither the client nor the plant, Mr. Brady said.

Yesterday, he said, the attorney, Lee Lundy of the firm Tidings and Rosenberg, arrived with Bertram C. Willis, Campbell Soup's group director for government and community relations, and Donald R. Lanning, vice president of grocery operations for the company.

Mr. Brady said he was informed that the plant's employees had been notified that morning that the plant would close in September.

"They met with me today because they wanted me to know that this was not in their mind a failure of the state to meet their needs, but part of a corporate reorganization the company felt required to carry through," Mr. Brady said. "The folks from Campbell Soup went out of their way to indicate this has nothing to do with the state of Maryland, but everything to do with their own strategic business plan."

Mr. Brady said he discussed with Campbell representatives the possibility that the state could provide funds to improve the plant and possibly keep it open. But, he said, "They indicated they had gone through a very careful analysis and had concluded the economics clearly drove them to this decision. There was nothing feasible to be done at this plant."

He said Campbell officials were interested in what could be done to help Chestertown workers find other employment. Mr. Brady said he explained what resources and programs the state could offer and suggested they contact the United Way, which in the past has developed programs for displaced workers.

"We're going to do everything we can to help the employees end up in an employed situation, but it is too early to know exactly what the details for that will be," Mr. Brady said.

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