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June 7, 2011 Portlandbiz

Barber Foods' future based in investments, fewer jobs

Photo/Rebecca Goldfine David Barber, president of Barber Foods, stands in the company's Portland facility
Photo/Rebecca Goldfine Efrem Weldmichael, a human services counselor with Portland’s refugee services program, will help laid-off Barber workers find new jobs

In the past year, as David Barber and his three siblings shopped for a buyer for their family-owned company, they refused to consider any potential owner who would move the longstanding Barber Foods factory and headquarters out of Portland.

"The plant has always been here," says David Barber, president of the company. "Dad started the company 55 years ago here and we didn't want to see the jobs or the plant shift out of here."

Gus Barber, a first-generation Armenian who died in 2008, founded Barber Foods in 1955 with one employee, a sharp butcher knife and an old truck, according to the company website. Today the company has 650 employees and operates out of a 230,000-square-foot facility on St. John Street, producing products such as frozen chicken cordon blue, scallop-and-lobster-stuffed chicken, chicken nuggets and chicken fingers. This year it paid about $71,000 in property taxes to the city of Portland, according to the city's treasury department.

Last week, the four Barber siblings announced they sold the company to AdvancePierre Foods, based in Cincinnati, for an undisclosed price. AdvancePierre, which was formed by the merger of two family-owned companies last year, sells packaged sandwiches, chicken, beef and bakery products to the food service, school, club, vending and convenience store markets. The acquisition of Barber Foods is AdvancePierre's 11th food production facility and will help the company expand on the East Coast, according to Bill Toler, CEO of AdvancePierre Foods. Oaktree Capital Management LP, a Los Angeles-based investment firm, is the majority shareholder and will continue to maintain a majority share of the company, according to a company press release. AdvancePierre, which employs 4,000 people, reported net sales of $1.4 billion last year.

AdvancePierre plans to invest up to $10 million of equipment upgrades starting immediately at the Portland facility to increase the efficiency and speed of production lines, according to Toler. The goal is to eventually double the plant's production, although Barber declined to reveal current production levels.

The modernization of the plant will result in layoffs over the next 12 months. While layoffs at any workplace are difficult, the population at Barber Foods may make the upcoming changes even more challenging.

Since the Vietnam War, Barber Foods has made a name for itself as a welcoming workplace for Portland's immigrants. "We actively reached out in the 1970s when the Vietnam War ended," Barber says. "We were an entry point for immigrants who could start on the production lines and start a new life." A few employees working at Barber Foods have been with the company for more than 30 years, he adds.

Over the years, as more immigrant communities arrived in Maine beyond the first wave of Vietnamese refugees, they were directed by social service workers to apply for jobs at Barber Foods. Today, at least half the work force comes from outside the United States, and at any given time 50 different languages might be spoken on the plant floor, according to Barber.

A few of the workers were highly trained professionals, such as doctors or engineers, in their home countries, Barber says, and some did so well at Barber Foods they were able to attain supervisory positions over time.

At the moment, it is unclear how many jobs will be lost when AdvancePierre completes its upgrade. Barber says within the next month, the company will have a better idea of its future production needs. All workers on the production lines, as well as any senior staff people, will receive a 60-day notice and severance pay based on length of time with the company, as well as job replacement services and possible transfers to other locations, company officials say.

Barber, who this winter stepped into his new job as company president, plans to stay on with the company. His sister Julie will remain in her sales manager role. Their older brother, Steve, is retired, and Kathy, their other sister, does not work for the company. While the name of the company will switch to AdvancePierre, Barber says the brand name on all its products will remain intact.

Efrem Weldmichael, a human services counselor with Portland's refugee services program, says his office will work with the state's Department of Labor to help laid-off Barber Foods workers fill out unemployment forms. Since the layoffs have yet to happen, the state and city have no plan in place to help them, but will assist those willing to be retrained for new work, Weldmichael says. They might be encouraged to apply for positions with other Portland employers with a history of hiring non-native English speakers, such as Nichols Portland or Paradigm Windows Solution. Weldmichael says Hannaford Bros. Co., a few local hotels and the two hospitals are all potential employers as well. But it is a hard time to lose work, he adds.

"Naturally they are upset," Weldmichael says, of the Barber workers he has spoken to. "Because at this time there are no jobs in the country." Weldmichael, who is from the African country of Eritrea, says he knows of two Eritreans who have been employed at Barber Foods for 20 years.

Though the company will change ownership, Barber insists that the business's values will stay in place, including the company's commitment to hiring foreign-born workers. When asked about this, Toler wrote in an email that AdvancePierre expects "to continue honor local commitments, upholding Barber company values and being a good corporate citizen whenever we conduct business."

Barber says, "AdvancePierre has the same cultural aspects as we do. At one of their plants, the second most spoken language is Hmong."

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