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In holiday surprise, laid-off workers at Shop Vac find that their Williamsport plant won’t close, after all

On Christmas Eve, the workers at the iconic Shop Vac plant in Williamsport learned that it would remain open after all.

Former Shop Vac employee Tia Fisher holds a protest sign in front of the company's plants in Williamsport, Pa., during a protest in September. Now she is overjoyed that a new buyer has agreed to keep the plant open.
Former Shop Vac employee Tia Fisher holds a protest sign in front of the company's plants in Williamsport, Pa., during a protest in September. Now she is overjoyed that a new buyer has agreed to keep the plant open.Read moreSipa USA via AP

Tia Fisher called it “the best Christmas present ever.”

Fisher, 48, got the news on Christmas Eve. She was going back to work at the job she loved.

Fisher, a customer service representative at Shop Vac in Williamsport, Pa., was one of hundreds of workers abruptly laid off in September when the company, a manufacturer of iconic rugged canister vacuums, declared that it was pulling the plug and immediately going out of business.

Delivered coolly and without warning, the surprise announcement devastated Fisher, who is a single mother, and hundreds of her colleagues. Managers said that a sale of the company had fallen through, and that the pandemic had left the company no choice but to turn off its assembly lines. Blindsided employees would receive no health care or severance. “We all came out crying,” Fisher said. “The whole floor.”

On Thursday, Shop Vac was granted a reprieve.

“I had been praying,” said Fisher, who had taken another job at a company. “My prayer was, ‘Please let someone come in and buy Shop Vac.’”

» READ MORE: Something sucked the air out of Shop Vac Corp., and 437 Pa. employees and a storied firm are out of luck

Williamsport Mayor Derek Slaughter was just as jubilant.

“It’s much welcome light coming at the end of 2020 and the rotten year it’s been for all of us,” he said Tuesday.

A Chinese conglomerate called GreatStar Tools announced it was acquiring Shop Vac. It planned to recall most of the workers let go.

Fisher learned of the sale on Facebook after attending church services.

“This was the best news ever,” she said. “Especially with everything that transpired this year. I’m so, so thankful.”

GreatStar’s website said it would pay $42 million to acquire all of Shop Vac’s assets.

Management on Tuesday said it was working out details on rehiring laid-off staff.

“We do not yet know how many people we will need. However, we intend to hire as many people as is necessary to meet the demands of a growing new business,” said Gary DuBoff, group president of GreatStar Tools USA. “While we do not yet have a firm estimate on hiring needs, we do plan to restore Williamsport production to previous levels.”

GreatStar is a division of Hangzhou Equipment Holdings LLC. GreatStar brands include mainstays found at Lowe’s and Home Depot: Arrow Fastener, a manufacturer of heavy-duty staple guns; Pony and Jorgensen, makers of pipe clamps; Goldblatt trowels; and Prime-Line hardware products.

Since its founding in 1953 in Williamsport by Martin Miller, Shop Vac has evolved into one of the largest employers in the town, best known as the home for the Little League World Series. Shop Vac also became a global brand, synonymous with the wet/dry vacuums found in workshops the world over.

The firm had run into difficulty in more recent years, reportedly amassing about $50 million in debt. The company hastily shut down a warehouse in New York state last year, leading to lost orders, Fisher said. There were rounds of layoffs.

The chief executive, Jonathan Miller, 72, a son of the late founder, left Williamsport before the announcement of the shutdown and moved to California, employees said. His daughter, Felice Miller, named president a year ago, also left town. She maintained a residence in California’s Bay Area.

Since September, about 145 of the original 430 employees have continued to work at Shop Vac, tasked with filling old orders and winding down business.

Gearing back up will take time, said Jason Fink, president of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce.

“GreatStar is buying this as a going concern and wants to bring back people who know how to make Shop Vacs,” said Fink, who spoke with company executives on Tuesday. “Their expectation is that it’s going to take around 150 days to get orders with previous customers as they had sourced other container vacs when the closure was announced. As orders start to come back, they’ll grow the hiring of people. The key is to get Shop Vacs back onto the store shelves.”

“Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to shut down than it is to restart an operation,” Fink said.

Fisher said she hopes to be back at Shop Vac before the end of January.

“I’m so very grateful that GreatStar has taken the initiative to see the potential in Shop Vac. We can all build this company back up again,” she said. “And I’ll be happy to be on the ground floor again, working my way up.”