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How locals saved a furniture company in Ohio

A look Norwalk Furniture's April 2010 showroom.

Kai Ryssdal: So here's a thought about unemployment. Working off that bit in Jeff Horwich's piece about the ADP report today and how the private sector gained 114,000 positions last month -- maybe the first step instead of worrying about adding jobs ought to be hanging on to some of the ones we already have.

Dan Bobkoff from the public media project Changing Gears has the story of how one Ohio town saved its best-known business.


Dan Bobkoff: For more than 100 years, Norwalk Furniture made custom-order sofas and chairs from its factory in Norwalk, Ohio. So it was a nightmare for Mayor Sue Lesch when the company was on the brink.

Sue Lesch: It is really our flagship company. It's the company we're proud of. We're known for furniture all over the country.

In 2008, the housing crisis depressed demand for furniture. The company's bank pulled its credit line. Norwalk Furniture closed its doors.

Lesch: The closing of Norwalk Furniture was just a shock to the very system of this city.

So, the story could have ended here. A company dies, leaving hundreds without jobs. And yet, today there's furniture being made in Norwalk, Ohio.

Tom Bleile: My name is Tom Bleile. I'm one of the 12 investors who have invested in Norwalk Furniture Corp.

Over just four days, Tom Bleile and a group of local families came together to buy the company. Bleile worked in his family's highway construction business much of his life. But, like many in this town of 17,000, he didn't like its most famous company closing up shop.

It seems kind of crazy. There was hardly any time for the families to do their homework. And they weren't exactly experts.

Bleile: Quite frankly, most of the investors couldn't tell you the difference between a sofa and a loveseat.

But there was something else behind all this. Sure, they hope to make money, but investors like Dan White saw this deal as their civic duty.

Dan White: The people who live here are truly devoted to this town. So, it really wasn't that difficult to get those 12 families to come together.

With financing secured, and Norwalk Furniture sold to the group of families, Dan White became its president. Despite knowing little about furniture or manufacturing, he streamlined the business. The new Norwalk was going to focus just on custom high-end couches and chairs. White says everything else had to go.

White: Running their own trucking fleet, running their own retail stores, etc., were components we weren't going to be interested in.

Three years later, Norwalk Furniture has no bank debt, and about 150 workers like Jim Spears are back on the job.

Jim Spears: I mean, I got hired in here when I was 20 years old. I'm 45 now. I have a wife and three daughters. And it was scary. Definitely a little bit of depression going on there.

Saving Norwalk Furniture has had ripple effects in town. Down the street, The New Horizons Baking Company churns out thousands of hamburger buns for companies like McDonald's. Trina Bediako is executive vice president and she says the Norwalk Furniture story influenced New Horizons' decision to expand here.

Trina Bediako: It kind of helped to reaffirm what kind of community this was. There is growth. The people do care. The businesses do want to thrive.

It's not a totally happy ending yet. Not all the workers from the old Norwalk Furniture were hired back. Norwalk's economy still needs help. But at least these 12 families show what's possible.

In Norwalk, Ohio, I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

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