One of the unfortunate recurring stories of this recession has been of corporations closing plants and workers losing jobs.
But when faced with the same scenario at his Riverbank truss company, Jeff Qualle was determined not to become another sad statistic.
As the general manager of Universal Forest Products Plant 361 (formerly DuraBilt Truss Co. Inc.) for 15 years, Qualle was heartsick when the Michigan-based wood-product corporation announced it was going to close his plant.
That would mean the loss of some 40 jobs and almost 50 years of history.
In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, plants from Trim Masters in Modesto to Neenah Paper in Ripon have shuttered because of the poor economy. Hormel Foods in Turlock is about to follow suit, with plans to close in October. The area also has been rocked during the recession by the closures of Gottschalks Mervyns.
Couple those closures with the area's high unemployment rate, 17.6 percent in July, and the workers at the truss plant were looking at a rough road to finding new work.
After Universal Forest Products bought the truss plant four years ago, the economy and construction business took a nosedive. Once, the plant, which designs and constructs wooden structural trusses for residential and commercial building projects, cranked out close to $20 million in sales annually.
Last year it cleared $4 million.
Instead of letting it all slip away, Qualle decided to buy the plant.
"I talked with my wife about it when the company told us and she said 'What about the people?' " Qualle said. "I've worked with these people for years. Some of them have coached my kids in baseball. So we talked about it and said, 'Let's try it.' "
With the help of one of his longtime neighbors, now a silent business partner, Qualle put together a package to buy the plant from its parent company.
Rick Soto, who went from being the plant design manager to general manager after the sale, has been with the company since he was 21. Now 34, Soto said Qualle taking over has inspired him and the rest of the employees.
"This is even better, it feels different," Soto said. "It doesn't feel corporate anymore. We're working for ourselves, we feel ownership. We feel very lucky."
Got it at a greatly reduced price
Qualle had to move fast, it was June when rumblings first came down that Universal Forest Products was closing the Riverbank plant. The company already had announced the closure of its other California truss plant in Fontana.
Qualle said the economic situation in the construction industry allowed him to buy the plant at a greatly reduced price, much like a real estate buyer getting a good deal on a foreclosed home.
"I guess you could call this a short-sale," said Qualle, who declined to give the exact purchase price other than to say that "they made us a very good deal."
Qualle said Universal Forest Products was thrilled at the prospect of him taking over instead of closing and helped as much as possible to make the sale happen.
In the span of a few weeks, Qualle and his partner put together an offer using some personal money and a bank credit line. He said it helped that they weren't starting a business from scratch but taking over one that was selling, producing and delivering products on a daily basis.
On Aug. 9, Qualle took over the assets and lease, officially changing the plant's name to Better Built Truss.
Big leap from manager to owner
Still, it was a big leap from general manager to president and owner in less than a month.
"I'm nervous as heck," Qualle said. "But we have fantastic people here who are working harder than they've ever worked."
Qualle was able to save 33 jobs but had to let seven people go during the transition.
Some employees have been with the company, started by Leonard Lovalvo in 1964, for more than 30 years. Many others have been there more than a decade.
Workers such as Waldo Navarro, who has been with the plant 10 years, said at first when they heard they were going to close, people were worried. But when they heard Qualle would buy it, their state of mind quickly changed.
"We're very happy because we're keeping our jobs, but also because we're here with him," Navarro said.
Qualle said the plant's prospects look promising. Business is up 25 percent from last year as it continues to make structural trusses for companies such as Atherton, Bright and KB Homes. Since taking over two weeks ago, the plant has put out more than $500,000 in project bids.
He joked that going from general manager to owner was a demotion. In the two weeks the deal was being made, he had at most three hours of sleep each night. He has had to become a quick study at everything from liability insurance to health benefits, as he has taken over all aspects of the business.
Now, surveying the plant yard as his workers quickly move from station to station, Qualle said he feels optimistic about the company's future.
"Hey, I'm not a rich guy, but no one wants to see the failures anymore," he said. "The workers, they feel like it's part of them now. And it is. It's for them."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.