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Robert Trigaux

Smithfield layoffs land hardest on Plant City



Smithfieldstock_2 Wake up and good morning. There will be no more makin' bacon in Plant City. As reported in newspapers across the country, Smithfield Foods Inc. -- the nation's largest pork producer -- said it would restructure its pork business by shuttering six factories and cutting 1,800 jobs -- though my count puts the numbers closer to 2,400. That includes the Smithfield facility in Plant City, one of the town's largest employers, which is scheduled to close in September and eliminate 760 jobs from a town that has already lost two major employers in the past year.

Plant City, by the way, is taking the biggest layoff hit of the six factory towns.

Smithfield Foods CEO C. Larry Pope, like his pork product, offers a down-home flavor. He recently told a local Virgina university audience: "Pork is the safest product to eat.... Overcook it, and you can wear it as a belt." And, according to the Virginian-Pilot, he defended his company's location in rural Virgina: "For those of you who don't know, we have indoor plumbing in that part of the country."

Smithfieldplantcitydanielwallace Country humor does not cure all wounds. Look at Smithfield's stock performance. It resembles, unfortunately, the pattern of the overwhelming majority of U.S. companies that were purring along just fine early last year only to fall off a cliff  last fall. The economic effects will ripple across smaller towns in the United States dominated by large Smithfield pork processing plants that were on Tuesday's hit list. (Photo of Smithfield Plant City facility taken Tuesday by Daniel Wallace of the St. Petersburg Times.)

Look at the similarity of frustrated responses from the leaders in towns, like Plant City, directly affected by the Smithfield news:

* Plant City (losing 760 jobs):  City mayor Mayor Rick Lott says finding the workers jobs will be a priority for the city's chamber of commerce. With the factory going up for sale, perhaps a new company will come in and absorb all the lost jobs. "That is our best hope," he told the St. Petersburg Times.

* Hastings, Nebraska (losing 370 jobs): Tom Hastings, president of the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce, says, “What’s tough about a community our size (population 25,000) is that, if you have a good work force and something like this happens, you hate to see those people leave because they may not end up coming back. Like with any workers, if there are jobs somewhere else, they will have to go,” he told the Grand Island Independent.

* Great Bend, Kansas (losing 275 jobs): "This is huge for us," said Jan Peters, director of the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development. "This is very significant for our community," he told Dale Hogg (here's a reporter well suited to the beat) of the Great Bend Tribune.

* Elon, N.C., (160 jobs): Virgil L. Stadler still remembers the first hog he and his father, Charlie Q. Stadler, slaughtered when they started the family business, Stadler's Country Ham Inc., in January 1955. They sold their Elon business to Smithfield in 2001. "My only regret is for the people who are losing their jobs," Stadler told the Burlington Times News.

* New Riegel, Ohio (230 jobs): Smithfield affiliate Farmland Foods president James Sbarro praised the employees and work record at New Riegel, but said the company needs to find ways to improve operating efficiencies to remain competitive, according to the Findlay Courier.

* Smithfield, Va. (630 jobs): Says Don Robertson, an Isle of Wight County (home to Smithfield and Smithfield Foods) spokesman: "We're scrambling now to find out what that really means, in a down budget year. We're still reeling from this information," he told the Newport News Press.

So, plenty of economic ripples and small town angst are starting across the country -- just from one layoff announcement by one company. This may even affect Isle of Wight's longstanding tourism slogan: Hams, history and hospitality.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:24am]


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