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Filaments manufacturer reborn with new energy

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Sixteen months after buying the former Specialty Filaments plant out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the Thomas Monahan Co. has resurrected the once-mighty bristle manufacturer and turned it into a productive business that continues to look for workers.

Now operating as “Monahan Filaments,” the company has a workforce of more than 140 workers, a more diverse product line and a new business plan that calls for exporting its wares to the same foreign markets that had undercut Specialty Filaments only a few years ago.

“The ground is always shifting, unfortunately,” said Jon Monahan, president of Monahan Filaments. “But we feel we understand the market well enough after a year that we are much more confident about where we need to take the company.”

It was in January of 2007 that Specialty Filaments filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following a steady decline in business brought on, in large part, by aggressive competition from overseas manufacturers. The sudden closure left 175 employees — most of them Addison County residents — out of work.

Thankfully, the plant’s shutdown proved to be only temporary.

The Thomas Monahan Co. (TMC) of Arcola, Ill., submitted to the bankruptcy court the lone, successful bid of $3.125 million for the Specialty Filaments business and property at 3046 Case St. in Middlebury.

Monahan officials have spent the past year sizing up their new acquisition, which now manufactures around 25 percent of Thomas Monahan Co.’s products: bristles for household, janitorial and industrial brushes.

While Monahan doesn’t foresee the Middlebury plant getting back to 175 workers, he does believe the business is on a path to stability.

“We’re really now making the hard decisions about what markets we’re going to concentrate on, which ones we’re not,” Monahan said. “There will be quite a few changes occurring over the summer and into the fall.”

One of those changes, now under way, is the closing of Monahan’s second facility located in rented space off Middlebury’s Industrial Avenue. It’s a facility in which Monahan primarily makes its toothbrush bristles. The company will close this second Middlebury facility in an effort to reduce operating expenses. Half of the Industrial Avenue site’s production equipment will be moved to the Case Street location, while the other half will be transferred to Monahan’s headquarters in Illinois. Monahan said the 15-20 workers at the Industrial Avenue  site will be transferred to Case Street.

“We couldn’t physically fit all of the (Industrial Avenue) plant into this plant,” Monahan explained at the Case Street facility.

Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC) officials are hoping the Industrial Avenue location, owned by local businessman Tony Neri, doesn’t stay vacant for long. ACEDC Executive Director Jamie Stewart said some entrepreneurs have expressed interest in setting up a wood pellet manufacturing business in the space.

“A critical component of this is we are working hard with the pellet manufacturer to identify potential commercial clients (for the pellets),” Stewart said.

Monahan is pleased with his workforce, though he said it has been a challenge finding and retaining employees.

“Labor is tight up here; it’s certainly a challenge,” Monahan said. “The labor pool is not as deep as it is in other areas of the country. We certainly have to work harder in finding and maintaining talent.”

He cited demographics and the cost of living as two factors that are limiting Monahan’s potential labor pool.

“We have to attract from a wider area,” Monahan said.

He believes the company is now poised to compete in a tough international marketplace.

“There are ups and downs,” Monahan said. “But what we are finding is that the market is staying fairly steady, which is a good sign. We’re not seeing lots of weakness, like one would expect with all the talk about the economy.”

Since filament production is a highly competitive industry in which domestic production can be undercut by foreign markets with cheaper labor costs, Monahan would not go into specifics on what products his company will emphasize and what others it would drop.

“There are two or three (markets) that are approaching 10 percent growth, but nothing over that,” Monahan said. “We will be shrinking in some other areas that just aren’t profitable. We will be making some investments in equipment in particular areas. The target will be to produce more, with the same amount of people.”

But Monahan did say the company expects to become more aggressive marketing its products outside of the United States.

“With the value of the dollar, we are pursuing more export activity,” Monahan said. “A couple of years ago, we did not export that much, but we are now looking to at least double our exports.”

Specifically, the company is targeting potential buyers in Europe and Asia. That’s somewhat ironic, as it was competition from foreign markets that led to the demise of Specialty Filaments. But Monahan explained that the company is now better able to compete in the global marketplace due to the weakened dollar and by better tailoring its products to consumers. Monahan has been able get filaments to clients in a more timely fashion and in the specific volume purchasers desire. That means less overhead, inventory and other related expenses for buyers.

“We know it may only be temporary,” Monahan said of the bump in exports. “But we will try to maintain a ‘beachhead’ in some of the foreign markets.”

Things are now looking up for a business once feared to have been brushed out of the Middlebury economy.

“We are planning for a pretty active summer,” Monahan said.

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