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May 20, 2008 - article has been reformatted for easier reading. Content has not been altered.

Vera Bradley hiring workers as it brings production in-house
Plant closings will result in 537 layoffs

By Barry Rochford (Created: Friday, March 21, 2008 9:48 AM EDT)

Vera Bradley expects to complete the move of production of its handbags and accessories in-house by early 2009. (File photo)

Vera Bradley has begun the process of hiring sewers as it moves production of its handbags and accessories in-house. The decision to end its relationship with four area plants that supply the company won’t affect Vera Bradley’s ability to sell items to customers, a company spokeswoman said.

Monica Edwards said Vera Bradley is looking to fill 44 open positions. The company will hire more employees as it ramps up production.

Three Fort Wayne plants that supply Vera Bradley are closing, according to a written statement released March 13. They are: Phoenix Sewing Inc., 9823 Indianapolis Road; Summit Production Systems LLC, 1530 Progress Road; and Mercury Manufacturing LLC, 217 Marciel Drive.

The closings will result in 537 layoffs. The majority of the layoffs — more than 380 — will take place by mid-May, with the rest occurring by the end of September, according to the statement. The plant closings will be completed by September.

The principal owner of the three Fort Wayne plants is Robert Hinty, who once worked at Vera Bradley. He did not return calls seeking comment.

The fourth plant, KAM Manufacturing in Van Wert, Ohio, also will cease production of Vera Bradley items, but the city’s mayor, Louis Ehmer, said he doesn’t think the plant will close.

He said KAM Manufacturing, a family-owned plant that was started by Kim Adams in 1988, was notified of Vera Bradley’s decision March 11.

Ehmer said Vera Bradley was the plant’s only customer. However, he said March 14, “There’s no intention of closing the plant as of today.”

He said the plant is in “good shape” for the next 60 days, but production work for Vera Bradley would be phased out throughout the rest of the year.

The mayor has met with the plant’s owners. “They feel that this setback will probably open up more opportunities for them to expand their business,” he said.

Ollie Adams, of KAM Manufacturing, did not return a call seeking comment.

KAM Manufacturing was forced to rebuild its facility in the Vision Industrial Park in Van Wert after it was leveled by a tornado in November 2002. The business temporarily relocated to Ohio City as the Van Wert facility was rebuilt.

Edwards said there won’t be an interruption in service as production is phased out at suppliers and phased in at Vera Bradley.

“We’ve planned for this transition,” she said March 18.

“It happens to fall between two major product releases for us, so that’s also an advantage in terms of timing.”

In a previous interview, Edwards said Vera Bradley is vertically integrating and expects to finish the process by early 2009. Moving production in-house likely will require about the same amount of workers as will be laid off.

“We hope to have the same production and staffing, if not more, in the Fort Wayne community,” she said.

Edwards said the laid-off workers would be given preferred status should they apply for jobs at Vera Bradley as it expands production. She added economic conditions will factor in to how many employees the company is able to hire.

Manpower Inc., which provides employment services for businesses, including Vera Bradley, has set up a phone number specifically for the laid-off plant workers, Edwards said.

Vera Bradley, which is building its new headquarters next to General Motor Corp.’s Fort Wayne Assembly Plant, will keep production in Fort Wayne, she said.

“Where specifically, we have not defined yet,” Edwards said.

After the plant closings were announced, Rob Young, president of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, said: “This is serious news. Any time you have, in this case, three companies issuing (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) notices … that’s serious news.”

He added that if there is a silver lining, it’s that the laid-off workers will be able to apply for the new positions at Vera Bradley, and that production will remain in Fort Wayne.

According to the statement released March 13, Phoenix Sewing was started in 1994, Summit Production in 2002 and Mercury Manufacturing in 2006. Respectively, they employ 190, 200 and 147 workers.

Hinty is a partner in Equity Management Group in Fort Wayne. According to the Web site for one its companies, Equity Management Group Consulting, www.emgc, EMG is an investment management group that “specializes in buying and managing small to medium size manufacturing companies in the Midwest.”

Hinty’s biography on the site states he helped grow Phoenix Sewing from five employees and $100,000 in sales to 220 employees and nearly $5 million in sales.

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