Officials ponder void to be left in Country Curtains' wake

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LEE — Looking ahead to the expected closing of the Country Curtains home furnishings business, town officials are hopeful that the headquarters property on Pleasant Street (Route 102) will attract a major employer.

About 175 of the company's 360 staffers who work in Lee and at a manufacturing facility in the Great Barrington village of Housatonic will be seeking new employment before the end of the year, assuming shareholders vote on Oct. 4 to approve the board of directors recommendation for an "orderly liquidation" of the business.

The company, started 60 years ago by Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick, reports total losses of more than $10 million since the beginning of 2015 on current annual revenue of $52 million, down from $80 million five years ago.

"It's very sad, it's going to hurt a whole lot of people," said Ernest J. "Chuckie" Cardillo, who served as facilities manager for the company and now is a selectman and the fire chief in Stockbridge. "All those local jobs lost, that's big."

Cardillo, who worked at Country Curtains for 15 years beginning in 2000, called it "a good place to work. I knew the Fitzpatricks for a long time, but they were in a tough market competing against everybody else. When I was first there, they were expanding retail stores and business was good."

"It's going to be rough for the local communities with so many people out of work," he added.

"It's very sad," said Lyndsay Broom, who worked in human resources at the company for two years before being hired this summer as the assistant chief administrative officer for Lee and Lenox.

"My heart is with my Country Curtains family," she said. "I enjoyed working there so much; it's an amazing group of people. We care about our community and we want to help."

Broom called the impending shutdown "a huge blow to Lee, Stockbridge and the area." She cited the dedication of the employees, many of whom have worked at the company for decades.

"I wouldn't be where I am without my time at Country Curtains," Broom added. "It taught me a lot."

Among the 300-plus shareholders are employees, board members and Fitzpatrick family members, and 40 percent of the company is owned by current and former employees participating in Country Curtains' employee stock ownership plan.

Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen praised the immediate activation of the Berkshire Regional Employment Board's Rapid Response Team to assist displaced employees after the expected vote to liquidate.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli triggered the mobilization of the unit.

"That was brilliant; that's exactly what the first step needs to be," Ketchen told The Eagle on Wednesday. "He's really a one-man band taking care of all that. Obviously, the big concern is the jobs and the contributions they make to the overall local economy and how it affects all of us, especially Lee but the immediate region as well."

"The community has had a sense that change was coming," Ketchen said. "However, now the decision has brought some finality to the speculation."

Pignatelli termed the upcoming closing of Country Curtains "a sad, disappointing reflection of the time we're in that this company that started on the Fitzpatricks' kitchen table in 1956, then morphed into what we have today, that it can't compete with the Amazons of the world."

In an interview on Wednesday, president and CEO Celia Clancy, a veteran retail executive hired 18 months ago, acknowledged the role of the web in the company's downfall.

"We did not keep pace with the tremendous growth of the internet," she said. "We invested in our website a year ago, it's very good looking but we didn't get the kind of return on investment that we were looking for. We had tremendous costs, but it turned out to be too little, too late."

Efforts to sell the business were intense, with the help of an investment bank experienced in catalog and direct-to-consumer sales, Clancy said. "We cast a very wide net."

About 40 of the company's 175 local employees work at the Country Curtains manufacturing facility in Housatonic. A production site in West Hartford, Conn., was closed earlier this year, and some of retail stores have been phased out, with 19 still remaining, primarily in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, including the original outlet in the Red Lion Inn.

Employees at the Lee headquarters work in teams specializing in web, direct mail and catalog sales and marketing. as well as a merchandising and inventory management group. Other staffers work in accounting, internet technology (IT) and in the pick-and-pack warehouse facility responsible for shipping out all orders. The company also maintains a call center and customer care center.

"We will do everything in our power to assist the employees," Clancy said. "The company and the family have many connections in the community, ready to help. It's been a pleasure and honor to lead this team for the past year and a half."

Clancy pointed out that efforts to sell the company's main campus are intensifying.

"The site is fantastic, a real jewel, quite beautiful, and people have approached us," she said. "There's some interest and we've also spoken with business and civic leaders interested in helping the employees, seeing the Berkshires grow and helping area businesses expand."

Ketchen, the chief administrative officer, emphasized that the town of Lee would do whatever it can to help find another appropriate use for the company's substantial headquarters off Route 102.

"It's a very valuable piece of property along the industrial corridor, close to the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Housatonic River and the railroad not far away," he said.

He said the Select Board and the Lee Chamber of Commerce would work closely with Town Hall leadership to field inquiries.

"We often get contacted by folks looking for property, and it's just a matter of finding the right fit," he said. "We have contacts we can follow up with that might be right for that site, and we'll absolutely do that."

The company's holdings in Lee, including the building and land at 705 Pleasant St., as well as The Rink on Housatonic Street and several other parcels, are valued at $6.3 million, according to Sarah Navin at the Lee Assessors Office. The company currently pays $88,805 in annual property tax.

In a letter to employees distributed on Tuesday, board Chairwoman Nancy Fitzpatrick called the decision to recommend liquidation of the company's assets "heartbreaking, enormously difficult for all involved."

"We all love Country Curtains," she wrote, "and I can say, unquestionably, that we have the best and most dedicated employees in the business. But the truth is Country Curtains is simply no longer able to operate in a way that can be financially sustainable."

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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