What’s left of Hufcor, a 122-year-old Janesville company that was once a global model of niche manufacturing and a local beacon of fairness and friendship between owners and union workers, is officially on its way. bankruptcy.
Los Angeles-based private equity firm OpenGate Capital is in what is likely the fatal blow to Hufcor, the nation’s oldest maker of moveable wall and door partitions. Its accordion-style wall partitions were once the norm for subdividing spaces in offices, convention centers and mega-churches.
Last week, Hufcor was placed in receivership, a legal bankruptcy action that gives the public and all interested and invested parties a view and potential claim on what remains of the now insolvent company.
Hufcor was founded in Janesville in 1900 as a manufacturer of commercial awnings. It had achieved global reach in the early 2000s, but then sank into bankruptcy after OpenGate completely outsourced all of its operations from the Janesville factory to Montery, Mexico. The death knell seems to have come after it was sold to family ownership in 2017 and purchased as an asset to be owned and operated by OpenGate.
OpenGate has a long history of court battles over brutal bankruptcies and closures of companies it has purchased. One such business, Golden Guernsey Dairy in Waukesha, was abruptly shut down in 2013 by OpenGate — illegally, the state of Wisconsin said in court — just years after it was acquired.
Now some of the Janesville union workers who have been released by OpenGate are citing issues that include cutting insurance benefits months earlier than scheduled as part of a severance agreement.
Other documents filed in civil court and approved by a Dane County judge late last week mark the start of a corporate receivership to sift through remaining Hufcor assets and bills. unpaid.
Further battles over the remaining pieces of Hufcor will play out in Dane County Court in September, when civil legal proceedings begin in earnest.
The receivership is segmented into dozens of sub-filings, related lawsuits and legal notices of claim by creditors, suppliers, customers, corporate attorneys and former Hufcor employees.
These include individuals and companies who claim to have been charged for products that Hufcor never sent them. Some say they were never paid for the materials they sold and shipped to Hufcor.
Details of the emerging receivership, buried in omnibus court filings now managed by a Wisconsin law firm, only indicate how and why Hufcor’s fortunes soured as OpenGate rushed to move its manufacturing operations in Mexico.
On a human level, 166 local, mostly unionized workers, who once built and shipped a product sold around the world, have been on the front lines of their employer’s rapid decline that has left a vacant shell of one factory in Janesville.
Mark Bailey, 62, worked at Hufcor for 33 years as a welder and later as an operator of computerized machines that milled everything from small bolts to long swingarms. They were all parts used in Hufcor’s moveable partitions.
Bailey was laid off earlier this year during OpenGate’s final shutdown of the Janesville plant.
He can tell anyone who still cares about the roughly 2,000 pieces he says went into a single set of movable walls.
He was a young worker when an old family estate held huge raffles and picnics during the holidays. It was a time, Bailey said, when there was “no division” between rank-and-file union workers and the company’s costume, sales staff and product designers.
“The bosses showed empathy. They showed how much they cared about the people working on their products. But that was before,” Bailey said.
Bailey was still around after 2017, when he said OpenGate executives banned local workers from listening to the transistor radios they had been allowed for years at their workstations. He said employees in different divisions have started to become siloed and distant.
“It seemed right away that they (OpenGate) weren’t trying to make friends. Like they don’t really want friendships between people who have been together a long time,” Bailey said.
Bailey was still working at Hufcor in June 2021, when his union shop, the Industrial Division of Communications Workers of America Local 84811, staged a public fight against OpenGate.
The union howled against Hufcor’s then-nascent plans to move manufacturing from Janesville to a plug-and-play factory building in a sprawling industrial park in Monterey, Mexico, near dozens of other outsourced manufacturing operations. .
The union’s fight included public confabs with U.S. senators, shameful full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and union protests outside the Janesville plant last summer. The protests drew hundreds of union activists, dozens of politicians and representatives of other local unions.
OpenGate’s only public explanation for the Janesville shutdown was a note from a third-party spokeswoman last summer. She wrote that the move to Mexico was a response to market vagaries related to the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of the gradual closure of an aging 40-year-old factory in Janesville.
Bailey remained at the Janesville plant through last winter, continuing work manufacturing parts for Hufcor products alongside a dwindling number of co-workers. Late last fall, he said, the parts still produced in Janesville were being loaded onto trucks destined for assembly in Mexico.
The same trucks moved case after case of machinery that was being sent south of the border, he said.
“Hufcor was a global name. It was all over the world, but it was coming out of here too. I was pretty proud of it, living here and being part of the world’s leading partition manufacturer,” Bailey said. “Now everything is in the mud. It’s nothing.”
Ultimately, Bailey said, he and about two dozen other union workers were fired in April with severance pay. He said he believed the final layoffs in Janesville coincided with OpenGate closing its factory in Mexico, a decision he said he had only heard of as rumors.
Some former colleagues, he said, have since taken jobs at other local companies, in part thanks to the job fair program that Hufcor has been forced to run to help displaced workers.
Bailey said he thought his union’s struggle might have caused OpenGate to continue some operations at the Janesville plant as it did on the Mexico exit, but he said he and the last workers had been fired months earlier than expected. the case.
Some of the workers received a health insurance package as severance pay, which Bailey said was supposed to be valid for a full year. But he said his policies and those of some others were abruptly halted a month or two after the final layoffs. One of his former colleagues, he said, now has “$150,000” in medical bills not covered by insurance.
The workers’ legal claim, if they have one, would be part of a series of legal machinations related to the ongoing receivership.
Much of Hufcor’s bankruptcy action still remains in limbo.
OpenGate — or someone — could owe around $5 million over the next five years to local landlords who own the empty Janesville Hufcor plant off Kennedy Road, based on now-disputed lease agreements, according to a Judicial inventory of related lawsuits.
The company’s ill-fated Mexican operation also appears mired in what could be years of leases that could go unpaid, according to court documents.
A Texas attorney claims to have provided legal services to Hufcor under an “executive employment contract” with OpenGate. That’s $420,000 worth of attorneys, according to court documents.
Voting no on a long list of legal claims is a church in Lake Worth, Florida, which said in court papers it never received 47 moveable wall panels it ordered and paid a $75 deposit. $000.
Local providers and satellite operators in the Wisconsin cities of Janesville, Green Bay and Muskego, to name a few, have also sued Hufcor for tens of thousands of dollars for various breaches of contract, lawsuits allege. related to bankruptcy.
Remaining local office
The remaining parts of Hufcor’s local operations had been moved to two tiny office suites on Woodlane Drive, next to a residential area, a few miles east of the closed Kennedy Road factory.
One afternoon last week, visible through a window in one of the suites was a small reception area with a Kleenex box perched on top. On a metal sign holder in front, someone had taped a computer printout that read “Welcome to Hufcor.”
The doors were locked, the lights were off and no one was there.
Also last week, the loading docks at Hufcor’s defunct factory on Kennedy Road were idle. The big blue building stood silent, a shell stripped of all machinery and people.
Along the doors of the loading dock and on the grassy terrace of the factory’s backyard, an old carton of chocolate milk lay on the ground, its bottom blown away after being trampled on by the dumpster. The carton’s expiration date was June 2021, around the time Hufcor took a sharp turn south into Mexico.
The ground was further littered with long black feathers and dozens of small sun-bleached bones – proof that Hufcor was gone long enough for red-headed vultures to now use the site as a landing pad to dine on carcasses in loneliness.
Circled overhead in the August sky were more than a dozen buzzards – the same breed of bird that had cleaned up animal bones and left them in the factory lot.
And in the back corner of the property, a lone tractor-trailer stood in terminal rest on its front support posts. It featured the Hufcor logo, an image of an eagle’s head above an American flag frozen in the middle of the ripple.
The logo was once a manifestation of national and corporate pride. If it were an epitaph, it might read: “Everyone knows what happened here. But does anyone care?
In Janesville, that unanswered question could be about all that’s left of Hufcor.
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