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In rural Pa., Wood-Mode cabinet company comes back from the brink

The custom cabinet maker in Snyder County reopened in August after closing abruptly in May.

Justin Ertley hurries to clear a jam on a conveyer system at Wood-Mode in Kreamer, Pa., last week.
Justin Ertley hurries to clear a jam on a conveyer system at Wood-Mode in Kreamer, Pa., last week.Read moreRALPH WILSON / For the Inquirer

KREAMER, Pa. — If someone dimmed the lights at Wood-Mode, Bill French might wander around the cabinets for hours, looking for a way out.

He bought the custom cabinet-making company, all one million square feet of it, this summer, and he’s still getting used to the place.

“I still get lost in here,” French, 73, said on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m noticing new things in here all the time.”

Wood-Mode, once Snyder County’s largest employer, did go dark for a few months this year after the company’s longtime owners shut it down abruptly in May due to financial problems. Most of Wood-Mode’s 938 employees were informed of the company’s closure, then told to pack up and leave. That day became known as “Black Monday.”

A county commissioner told The Inquirer in May that the closure would have a “huge impact,” and when employees went out into seeking new jobs, they found few that paid as well as Wood-Mode had.

“I was off for a month, then I got a job making two-thirds of what I made here,” said Terry Zellers, a cabinet builder who’s been at Wood-Mode for 19 years.

French lives nearby, in Middleburg, and owns Professional Building Systems, a modular home company. He worked on Wall Street prior to that. According to a profile in the Sunbury Daily Item, he also paid $1,000 to be on the Democratic ballot in New Hampshire during the 2016 election, favoring a $15 minimum wage and lowering the prison population by “steering some offenders into the domestic Job Corps.”

“When I heard about the layoffs here, I came here the very next morning,” French said.

Wood-Mode’s closure shot Snyder County’s unemployment rate up to 6.2 percent, one of the highest rates in the state. Other top employers in the mostly rural county, 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia, include Susquehanna University, local government and school districts, and Walmart.

After months of negotiation and research on the Wood-Mode name and the firm’s reputation for custom cabinetry, French purchased the company for an undisclosed price and began reaching out to former employees who could do multiple tasks.

“Every week, it was becoming less and less turnkey,” French said.

French had hoped to bring back 200 to 500 workers as orders began rolling again, but he does not believe Wood-Mode will again employ more than 900, as it did in the past. Approximately 238 former employees were back as of Tuesday.

“We’re entering into the slow season, when new construction is off, but come January, if new orders come up, we could bring in more people," he said.

Robert Gessner, Wood-Mode’s manufacturing manager, said the company is still dealing with a surplus of materials from orders that were canceled. Sales estimates for Wood-Mode last year were approximately $200 million.

Chuck Walsh, who’s sold Wood-Mode cabinets for decades to builders, said many stuck it out hoping a new owner would take over. Former employees were hoping for the same.

“I’ll tell you what, it was a real kick in the pants. It was just like, bam!” said Mike Kemble, 63, an employee for 32 years. “It’s great, and not just for us, but for this entire community.”