Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Here in Youngstown


I’m not a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan but rather took a liking to his music through searching for Nils Lofgren performances on YouTube. I first came across Lofgren from his days with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and his knockout performance of “Keith Don’t Go” more than 40 years ago. Born two years after me in 1951, also in Chicago, he joined the E Street Band in 1984 and also did some solo work. Some his most notable work with the band is on “Because the Night” and “Ghost of Tom Joad.”



My favorite of all is “Youngstown.” It’s a blistering 5-star, circle-the-bases performance by the band and has been performed in venues around the world. It always gets me thinking about my one trip to Youngstown, Ohio, in what would be my first taste of what I call Post-Industrial America.

At the end of the 1980s, I was a vice president at The Financial Relations Board, Inc. (FRB), the nation’s largest investor-relations firm at the time. I had several excellent clients – Budget Rent-a-Car, Toro, Old Republic International and Giddngs & Lewis, to name a few – but at various times was stuck with new clients for which the only rationale for signing up was to get as much revenue out of them as possible until they cut us loose. These marginal clients were a bane to every account manager’s existence because like the good ones you still had to bill certain hours, do monthly reports and perform other cumbersome tasks.

One day, probably in early 1989, my boss Dennis Waite and I were called into the president’s office and told we had a new client: GF Corporation and its wholly owned subsidiary, GF Business Equipment, Inc., in Youngstown, Ohio. Having done work for United Stationers and ACCO World in the office products segment, I thought it would be a interesting assignment.

However, this was an unusual client for several reasons: It was in eastern Ohio, where the agency had no other clients and might well have gone to the New York office; the company, although listed on the New York Stock Exchange, was in deep financial trouble; and the assignment was to help get the stock price up as quickly as possible to fetch a better sale price.

GF Business Equipment, Inc. stock certificate


Under usual protocol, a full account team would fly out for the new-client orientation meeting, which would be Dennis and me, a member from Market Intelligence (the FRB unit that set up investor meetings across the country) and a media-relations person. However, given that there was probably little or no budget, I was the sole FRB representative sent to meet with management. To save money, it would be a one-day, in-and-out visit to talk with the CEO, CFO and others involved in the company’s investor-contact programs.

GF began life as General Fireproofing Company in 1902. It entered the office-furniture business in 1907, changing its name first to GF Office Furniture and later to GF Business Equipment. GF was once the nation’s largest producer of metal office furniture, employing more than 2,000 people at its plant at Dennick and Wydesteel on Youngstown’s east side. Because of its expertise in metal fabrication, it manufactured aircraft parts during World War II rather than office furniture. According to reports, GF discontinued several product lines during 1970s.

Other than a walk through the plant, I remember very little about the visit. I was met by a woman whose name I’ve long forgotten (I’ll call her Carol for this purpose) and, as you may guess, the relationship was so short-lived that I’ve retained neither a Rolodex nor business card for anyone at GF. There were no sessions with CEO Ronald Anderson and the CFO discussing the business, plans for a turnaround or other actions that would help increase shareholder value, if I met them at all. There was, however, the plant tour.

Very few production lines operated that day down the long stretch of a typical American factory, and the facility was amazingly quiet. As Carol and I walked through the plant, me in a banker’s gray pinstriped suit, starched white shirt, red power tie and black oxfords, I noted the workers eying me warily for an inordinate amount of time. Each sported a look of suspicion, sadness and resignation. After returning to Carol’s office she told me why: They thought I might be somebody checking out the place for possible acquisition. Obviously others had been through before; I hadn’t realized that at age 40 I could look like a captain of industry.

Upon return to the office the following day, I surprisingly received little resistance when informing management this was a lost cause. GF probably paid my travel expenses, and we didn’t do as much as a quarterly earnings release. This trip has obviously left a great impression on me, some 27 years later. It’s one thing to read about companies in distress, quite another to witness it on the inside, first-hand.

In December 1989, GF stated it would close the Youngstown plant during the first quarter of 1990. It had been running losses of $9 million to $10 million annually on shrinking sales. The company declared bankruptcy on April 18, 1990, and its manufacturing facility, trademarks and patents were acquired by Tang Industries, an industrial conglomerate headed by Chicagoan Cyrus Tang. The plant closure put 300 people out of work and resulted in a flurry of lawsuits regarding pension and health-insurance obligations. Remaining production was transferred to Gallatin, Tennessee, and the company name was changed to GF Office Furniture, Ltd. That facility has since closed; a call to the main number states it has been disconnected.

The following is a link to photographs of the shuttered plant on Flickr by Steven B. Heselden, a retired Columbus, Ohio, firefighter, who graciously allowed my usage for this entry.

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbh3743/albums/72157626931501604

As late as the 1960 census, Youngstown's population was about 167,000, down only about 3,000 from its high in the 1930 census. By the time of my arrival, it had fallen to approximately 96,000, and today is estimated at about 65,000. Here, then, is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band doing "Youngstown"; watch a short 60+ year-old guy in a top hat with a hip replacement end the song with a dazzling solo. It's about the only thing positive to take from this story.


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