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For sale: Keller plant at New Salisbury

As of last Thursday, the Keller Furniture Co. plant in New Salisbury is for sale. Employees were told Friday.
The beleaguered company itself ‘is absolutely not for sale,’ said CEO Keith Williams, and will continue to do business, mainly as an importer and distributor of wood dining and bedroom furniture, but in another, smaller location closer to Louisville.
Williams said he is prevented by law from disclosing much information about the present status and future plans for the company, although he plans to discuss Keller’s situation in detail at a private stockholders’ meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 18, at Caesars Indiana in Bridgeport.
That meeting is closed to the public.
Yesterday, Keller stock was selling at $2.10, a 52-week low.
Keller is not the only American casegoods company that is suffering hard times. In the past few years, scores of wood furniture manufacturing companies have gone out of business, closed plants or drastically reduced output as competition from countries in the Orient and Eastern Europe has made it next to impossible to sell American-made solid wood products to customers who preferred lower prices.
Williams would not comment on the number of employees still working for Keller. The last lay-off was in early July when it’s believed about 70 workers were laid off.
Williams said last May in an interview that Keller started the year with 359 workers and would soon be down to about 250. In the next four or five months, he anticipated that the number would shrink to 100 or 120, and then, finally, to 50 or 60 workers.
In 1998, when Keller had its best year ever with $62 million in sales, Keller was booming with 700 employees at three plants. And then the domestic market began to suffer from imports, at greatly reduced prices and almost the same quality.
Keller closed its Culpeper, Va., plant in September of 2002, laying off about 120 employees, and closed its historic Corydon plant a few days after Christmas last year. Keller moved all its operations to New Salisbury.
Williams heads a team of executives who were brought in by the Keller board of directors last August to redirect a company that was losing money fast. He and other executives have made several trips to China the past six months to see how they could have furniture products made there and shipped here for assembly and distribution. Williams said 90 percent or more of Keller’s product will be imported. Containers are coming in from Slovenia and China.
Williams characterized the past year as ‘a year of incredible change in our industry, almost as great as any I’ve seen, including the technology industry.’
Williams said he’s expecting ‘average attendance’ at the stockholders’ meeting, and he believes most questions will be about Keller’s future, not the past. He anticipates ‘a very forward-looking meeting.’
The biggest issue right now, he said. is selling the New Salisbury plant, once a state-of-the-art wood manufacturing facility that has 200,000 square feet of space. Williams said with Keller downsizing and concentrating on light assembly, refinishing and distribution, the New Salisbury building is just too big and too costly to maintain.
There is no target date yet for the move, Williams said. A realtor has sent him a list of about 100 buildings that are available between New Salisbury and Louisville.
Williams said the recent tariff installed on imports by the federal government has had minimal impact on Keller. Other factors in the ruination of the domestic wood manufacturing industry, a former executive told this newspaper, are old and inefficient plants, fire insurance, high overhead costs, including workmen’s compensation, OSHA requirements, property taxes, payroll benefits and pension plans, plus the federal Family Medical Leave Act, and, when the company was public, extensive federal government reporting and disclosure requirements.
Williams said there is no truth to a rumor that the Ford Motor Co. is interested in the Keller plant.