MURRAY — Tuesday morning, Mark Manning utilized the large projector screen in the Murray Room of the CFSB Center on the Murray State University campus many times in attempting to answer one big question.
“So everybody wants to know … What happened with Briggs & Stratton?” the longtime president of the Murray-Calloway County Economic Development Corporation said from his podium during his address for the monthly Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce Business@Breakfast. And then, piece by piece, he broke down the steps that led to the August announcement that Murray’s Briggs & Stratton small-engine manufacturing plant would close next year.
“Well, here’s what happened.”
It started with him displaying a zero-turn lawnmower on the screen to show where the first cracks in the armor began to show over the past several years.
“For every one of those that is sold in the United States to a commercial lawn service, it takes 25-plus push mowers out of the market. What did Briggs & Stratton make? Engines for push mowers. But just as telling is that, in 2014, there were over 1,000 employees at our Briggs plant and they made 3.5 million engines. Now, by the time they made the announcement (that the plant was closing), that was down to 635 people and 2.7 million engines, with half a million sitting in a warehouse at the end of the season.
“Folks, the push mower business is tough, very tough, and I’ve had people ask me, ‘Is this the Chinese?’ Not really. There’s some Chinese engines out there, but not a flood of them.”
Next to appear on the screen was a photograph of an electric push mower, representing the growing popularity of mowers that do not use gas engines like the ones that turned Briggs & Stratton into a household name.
“This is probably the thing that hit the hardest,” Manning said. “I don’t know if they’re any good or not. I haven’t used one. But if you go to Lowe’s or Home Depot or any of the other big box stores, you’ll see a lot of bright, shiny electric mowers. Again, I don’t know if they’re any good, but I know people are buying them. And Briggs didn’t have an answer for that.”
Manning also said a look at Wall Street showed signs of trouble. He said that Briggs & Stratton’s prices two years ago on the stock market were about $28 a share. He said the day the Murray plant’s closing was announced — Aug. 15 — Briggs & Stratton’s stock had opened at about $8 a share.
“The next day, they were $4 a share,” Manning said of stock that has continued to struggle since August. Tuesday, Briggs & Stratton’s stock opened at $5.94. “Typically, when a company announces that they’re going to downsize their footprint, the stock prices go up, but that did not happen in this case.”
It was a few months before the closing announcement that Manning said Briggs & Stratton officials asked for a meeting with the EDC and Murray and Calloway County government officials. He said he knew something ugly was afoot when everyone in the room was told to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“We were told, in essence, that they were either going to close their facility in Poplar Bluff, Missouri and move it here or close the facility here and move it to Poplar Bluff, Missouri,” he said, describing one of the biggest challenges facing the piecing together of any incentive package Murray-Calloway County could muster, the Murray plant’s building.
“The facility in Poplar Bluff is a newer building and it was a half-full building versus a roughly 50 to 60-year-old building that’s chopped up, has varying ceiling heights, 40 years of grease and is jammed to the rafters with equipment.
“So we bought in the state, TVA, the city, the county, Murray State, and we put together a package that included everything from building them additional building space to financial incentives to training, and it was an amazing package. A lot of people say, ‘Well, what did we do to keep them?’ I’m here to tell you we did absolutely everything humanly possible and we were swimming upstream.”
In the end, the Poplar Bluff building’s youth and less wear and tear prevailed. The layoff process at the Murray plant began in October with the next round scheduled for January. The plant will have its final round of layoffs in June before closing for good sometime in the fall.
The plant began operation in 1985 inside what had been the former Tappan appliances plant on the east side of the city’s downtown area. Tappan closed in 1980.
“So you know what? We’re done with that. We are moving into next year and at the top of that list is, ‘What are we going to do to replace those jobs and keep this community on the very positive track it has been on for so long and be even better than we are today?’” Manning said, going back to a source he has promoted ever since the closing announcement – the 630 employees who are losing their jobs at Briggs & Stratton.
“We’re not trying to sell the Briggs & Stratton building particularly. We’re trying to sell the community and the labor force,” he said. “You’re talking about some very skilled people and you’re talking about people that have a work ethic that is second to none anywhere.”
He said about 4,000 emails have been sent to CEOs of numerous companies, while the phone lines between Murray and the Kentucky Cabinet for Workforce and Economic Development in Frankfort, as well as the headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville, Tennessee, have been crackling constantly.
A buzz from the near-capacity audience at the Murray Room was heard as Manning gave a progress report on potential suitors.
“We are having results,” he said. “We had a major Chinese company in two or three weeks ago that also spent a lot of time with Murray State, and this is a company that happens to make a product that would suit our labor force extremely well. I don’t know exactly what their time frame is but, while the Briggs building may not be as clean and pretty and new as we would like for it to be, we have other facilities available.
“Our spec building (in the Murray-West Industrial Park) recently has been receiving more attention and we are also working with a company on the spec building. Like any other company, it is not done until it’s done, so I can’t say too much about it.”
The crowd also seemed pleased when Manning gave an update on the plight of displaced workers.
“A lot of these folks are getting hired,” he said. “I don’t know if (local dairy processor) Saputo picked up any, but I know Pella has picked up quite a few and there have been other companies around the region in Hopkinsville and other places coming here because they know we have those good employees. Will they all get hired by other companies? Not unless we bring them here.
“And that’s what we do.”
In his summation, Manning said that while the loss of Briggs is a major blow — in total, he estimated it will cost the community between $100 million and $150 million — this community has been down this road in the past, though the dynamics are different this time. Just before he took over as EDC president, Murray lost its Mattel toy plant to Mexico in 2001. Within less than a year, though, it offset that loss by landing the Pella windows and doors plant.
Manning said the recovery of today will be in the form of not a single plant matching or nearly matching the number of jobs lost previously, but a series of smaller plants paying higher wages.
“We’re going to be fine,” he said. “We’re going to be better than fine.”