People to People Ministries was busy on the afternoon of Dec. 9, passing out food to needy Wooster, Ohio, residents who recently have lost their jobs.
Lydia Stahl, the group's executive director, still was evaluating the news she had received that morning: The city's largest employer, Rubbermaid Inc., will close by June 2004.
``When 900 people lose their jobs, they'll be walking through our door,'' said Stahl, whose group has depended on Rubbermaid for contributions over the years. ``As the times have changed, we've lost our manufacturing jobs. Now, we've become a service community. For us, all it amounts to is minimum-wage jobs with no benefits.''
Rubbermaid is a mainstay in Wooster, a community of about 25,000. The company and its executives are celebrated for supporting not only the local economy, but charities and institutions of all types. Some of Stahl's volunteer workers are current or former Rubbermaid employees. Recently, Rubbermaid held a paper drive for Stahl's group. Rubbermaid employees have donated more than $1.1 million since 1998 to local social services.
Although Rubbermaid also did not make its usual monetary contribution to the local United Way this year, Stahl knows the community will miss the company's support.
``It's those little things that add up,'' Stahl said in a Dec. 9 interview at her office. ``We're definitely going to be hit from both ends.''
It is the sins of the past, competitive sources said, that got Rubbermaid into this debacle, as it overly slashed prices to cling to market share in an environment dictated by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and K-Mart Corp. To add salt to open wounds, the year itself has not been positive for home storage products makers. Chicago-based Home Products International Inc. blamed decreased sales and high raw-material costs for its $17.3 million loss through the first nine months of 2003. The firm announced in August its plan to close an injection molding operation in Eagan, Minn.
Tupperware Corp. of Orlando, Fla. - a major maker of food storage, preparation and serving items - also has struggled lately. The firm's profit tumbled 64 percent, to $20.5 million, in the first nine months of 2003, even though sales were up 6 percent vs. 2002 to $831 million.
Despite the presence of other companies, the city of Wooster still is known as a one-company town, where Rubbermaid touches every aspect of life. It is the city's largest employer, with 850 manufacturing jobs that will be eliminated. Additionally, the fate of 400 corporate workers still is being decided.
D&S Distribution Inc., a third- party logistics firm with six locations throughout Wooster, grew in large part because of its relationship with Rubbermaid, officials said.
``They were certainly a major part of [our business] at one time,'' said Stan Olevnik, warehouse operations manager with D&S. ``Many of the process changes we put into place, we did to service Rubbermaid. We learned a lot from what we did with them.''
Still, Olevnik said D&S has diversified itself over the years so it will be able to handle the loss of Rubbermaid business, which now represents less than 10 percent of D&S' sales.
``We're not going to close the doors because of this,'' Olevnik said in a Dec. 11 telephone interview. ``We're really happy that we've kept with a strategic plan of being diversified.''
Residents and city officials had heard rumors for months, and the buzz increased after a Nov. 12 tornado caused $20 million in damage to Rubbermaid's 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. Its property in Wooster also houses 1 million square feet of distribution and warehouse space.
``What really threw us and made the shock factor to me was, after the tornado, I challenged my membership to show the resilience that I know we have, to bounce back from this and take this adversity and turn it in to something positive,'' said Chuck Shaffer, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 302.
By Nov. 14, Shaffer said employees were able to start about one-third capacity of the plant.
Shaffer has worked at Rubbermaid for 28 years. Manufacturing employees have an average seniority level of 15 years; the average employee age is 45 years. Union officials pledged to pursue other options, including attracting other companies to the area.
``We're going to try and explore every avenue,'' Shaffer said. ``But we've also got to be realistic that some things are just not going to happen.''
Residents and city officials know that it will be impossible to replace the contributions from Rubbermaid, which is the largest payer of real and personal property taxes, according to Wooster Mayor James Howey. The Wooster City School District, already facing a $3.5 million deficit, collects $1 million from Rubbermaid every year. The school system's total budget is $37 million. The College of Wooster, a private liberal arts school, houses the Rubbermaid Student Development Center, which was renovated in 1989 under a grant from Rubbermaid. Employees have been involved in every aspect of community life, Howey said in a Dec. 9 statement, serving on boards and commissions and generously volunteering both time and money to community groups.
``It will be both financially and psychologically devastating,'' said Michael Stigg, Wooster's director of administration. ``This has been a major corporate citizen for us. It's a permanent loss for sure. We will recover, we will survive, but it will be difficult.''
Staff reporter Frank Esposito contributed to this story.