Gone but not forgotten
25 employers we miss
- February 28, 2011
Some companies spend millions trying to build brand loyalty. Others gain it easily, in part because they offer something that becomes so essential to our lives. Who could live without aluminum foil?
When these companies sell or close their Virginia operations, it’s like losing a close friend. Over the past 25 years, many major employers in Virginia have come and gone. Some, like Reynolds Metals, were large and seemingly indestructible; others were so small they seemed like neighbors. Here’s a list of some of the ones we miss, with apologies that we don’t have space to include more.
A. H. Robins Co.
This Richmond-based pharmaceutical company can claim several successes — including ChapStick, Dimetapp and Robitussin. But it ran into legal and financial trouble when its Dalkon Shield, a contraceptive device, severely injured some customers. The company, which faced more than 300,000 lawsuits, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1985. It was sold four years later to American Home Products. That company later became Wyeth, which was acquired by Pfizer. It still sells Chapstick and some of Robins’ other products.
University of Virginia alum Carl Smith put his economics degree to good use by founding this Charlottesville energy company in 1961; its success allowed him to donate generously to U.Va., including a $25 million gift in 1997. CONSOL Energy Inc. bought the firm in 2007.
This McLean-based management and technology consulting firm enjoyed a global reach, providing services to companies and government agencies in more than 60 countries. Before it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 and was sold to several companies, it received accolades from several publications ranging from BusinessWeek (No. 75 on its 2008 “The Best Places to Launch a Career” list) to Defense News (No. 90 on its list of Top 100 defense contractors).
Launched in 1957 by Sydney and Frances Lewis (who later became notable art collectors) the retail chain became internationally known for its catalog showrooms and quirky, sometimes surreal storefronts. One Richmond store sported a brick facade that appeared to be peeling away from the building. After two trips through bankruptcy court, Best closed in 1997.
Circuit City Stores Inc.
From humble roots as a single store selling televisions, Circuit City rose to national prominence. An innovative superstore format and strong consumer sales helped build the chain into a Fortune 500 company that was the country’s largest retailer for consumer electronics. By the late 1990s, though, rivals such as Best Buy proved more nimble by getting into gaming and other products. Circuit City filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and closed more than 600 stores.
Coleman’s Nursery Inc.
For 39 years this Portsmouth nursery attracted sightseers with its annual Christmas Wonderland exhibit of festive holiday lights and animated figures. After the business closed in 2004, the Portsmouth Museums Foundation bought the collection and continues the holiday tradition at the Courthouse Galleries.
Craddock-Terry Shoe Co.
Founded in 1888, this company was for a time Lynchburg’s largest employer and the South’s largest shoe manufacturer. It made nationally sought-after, top-quality boots and shoes as well as footwear for soldiers during World War II. After a more-than-100-year run, it closed in 1997. The original 1906 factory building is now the Craddock Terry Hotel, a 44-room boutique hotel that sports shoe-themed amenities.
Ford Motor Co.
assembly plant, Norfolk
The plant began building automobiles back when drivers had to start the car with a hand crank. By the time it closed in 2007, it was one of three plants making Ford’s best-selling model, the F-150 truck. In its 82-year history, the Norfolk facility made nearly 8 million cars and trucks and was one of the area’s largest employers.
While this Norfolk-based shoe retailer eventually opened several stores on the East Coast, its store at Norfolk’s Wards Corner — “the Times Square of the South” — was special. Parents appreciated the upscale experience; kids enjoyed visiting Lulu, the store’s monkey. Legions of shoe fans mourned its closing in 1993.
International Paper Co.
paper mill, Franklin
This mill, whose history stretched back to the 1800s, played a key role in Franklin’s economy for more than a century. In announcing the plant’s closing, International Paper (the world’s largest pulp and paper company) cited the economic recession and the industry’s overcapacity. The last worker left in 2010.
Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard
Eleven years after Patricia Kluge got into the wine business, the bank foreclosed on her 900-acre operation in 2010. It seemed ironic that a wealthy woman who had given millions to charity in Virginia could not raise enough money to pay off bank loans on the winery, an estate home development and Albemarle Mansion, the 23,500-square-foot country home where she and former husband, the late John Kluge, used to wine and dine Virginia’s social elite. William Moses, Patricia Kluge’s husband and business partner, blamed the couple’s woes on a financial storm: a collapsing real estate market, a recession and tight credit. While the tasting room remained open at presstime, the winery’s future remains uncertain. Real estate mogul Donald Trump is reportedly interested in buying the house, the winery and the estate development.
LandAmerica Financial Group Inc.
A service provider for residential real estate transactions, the company grew rapidly and became the third largest title insurance group in the U.S. Yet it couldn’t survive the 2008 mortgage-driven financial crisis and closed in 2008 after selling off its title insurance companies.
This telecom firm grew to be the second largest long-distance provider in the U.S. and survived a name change and bankruptcy before being acquired by Verizon in 2006. Trivia: “MCI” was originally an acronym for Microwave Communications Inc. The company’s original plan was to build microwave relay stations for shipping companies.
Miller & Rhoads
Before shopping malls sprouted in the suburbs, downtown department stores drew shoppers into the city for a special day out. Ask former devotees of Miller & Rhoads about visiting the Tea Room and watch their eyes mist over. Richmond residents still talk about taking their children every year to see Santa before the department store closed in 1990.
New River Industries Inc.
At its peak, this textile manufacturer had about 500 employees working in two plants. Like many textile companies in the commonwealth, it was driven out of business by stiff overseas competition and closed its doors in 2007.
Reynolds Metals Co.
What do aluminum foil, aluminum cans and aluminum siding have in common? Reynolds Metals, of course. This aluminum company — the third largest in the world — was a manufacturing pioneer. Appropriately, its modernist headquarters building made extensive use of aluminum and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it serves as the headquarters for Altria. Alcoa bought out Reynolds in 2000.
S&K Famous Brands Inc.
Started in 1967 by two brothers-in-law who sold clothing out of the back of a station wagon, this retailer offered discount menswear in 26 states during its peak years. It closed in 2009, one of the victims of a poor retail environment created by the Great Recession.
This was Richmond’s first department store and, more than a century later, it was the last. Started in 1842 by German immigrant William Thalhimer, the single dry-goods store evolved into a 26-store chain. Miller & Rhoads could claim Richmond’s best Santa, but Thalhimers could lay claim to Snow Bear and Lego Land. After 150 years, the downtown Richmond store was closed in 1992 by its new owner, The May Department Stores Co. Almost all of the other Thalhimers locations became part of Hecht’s, another May department store chain.
Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc.
The family-owned supermarket chain began with a single store in 1937 and grew into a chain of more than 25 stores. In recent decades, it was Richmond’s undisputed grocery market leader. Ukrop’s introduced many innovations, including valued customer cards, an array of freshly made to-go meals and a golden gift program that allowed shoppers to contribute a portion of what they spent on groceries to their favorite charities. Ukrop’s was an active corporate patron, sponsoring an annual holiday parade and a 10-K run. Ukrop’s stores became part of the Martin’s chain in 2010 after being sold to a division of Dutch supermarket giant Ahold.
Virginia’s large state-based banks
In an attempt to keep banks from New York, Chicago and the West Coast out of the South, the Southeastern Regional Banking Compact allowed Southern banking companies to acquire each other beginning in the mid-1980s. Large regional banks based in North Carolina and Georgia eventually took over Virginia’s large banks in the late 1990s. These included:
Richmond:Crestar, Central Fidelity and Signet
First Virginia Banks
Virginia’s furniture plants
Overseas competition devastated the furniture-making industry. The closings included:
Lane Co. furniture plant
The Lane Co. is one of many furniture manufacturers that developed along the North Carolina-Virginia line. The Altavista plant, closed in 2001, was perhaps best known for making cedar chests.
Pulaski Furniture Corp.
The company started off as a manufacturer of bedroom and dining room furniture in 1955 and quickly became a major employer. But in the 1990s overseas competition drove the company to import more goods. It merged with Samuel Lawrence Furniture in 2006 and now is a division of the holding company Home Meridian International. The next year, the company closed its last domestic manufacturing plant.
Virginia’s large textile plants
The textile industry used to be one of the state’s largest employers. Yet as more production moved offshore, American plants couldn’t compete with the lower-cost imports, so many shuttered their doors. The closures dealt a severe economic blow to their communities and included:
Dan River Inc. mills
In its heyday, this textile manufacturer employed 14,000 workers in its hometown alone. Gujarat Heavy Chemicals bought the company in 2006, closed the last Danville plant in 2008 and moved production overseas.
Walter Letcher Pannill modeled Martinsville’s first locally owned knitting mill on the ones he had seen in New York. By the 1950s, it had helped make Martinsville and Henry County “the sweatshirt capital of the world.” Sarah Lee Corp. bought the mill in 1989 and closed it five years later, after the North American Free Trade Agreement made overseas production more cost-effective.
From making fleece-lined sweatshirts in the 1930s, this marketer, manufacturer and distributor of active apparel grew into a regional powerhouse. The company filed for bankruptcy and closed the Martinsville plant in December 1999, eliminiating 1,130 jobs.