Sawmill manager: World going to hell

T&S Hardwoods General Manager Jack Swanner sat in his office with an ashtray full of cigarette butts next to him and an unopened bottle of merlot on his desk.

Laying beside him was a Wall Street Journal, and Swanner said the news was bad.

“It says the same thing they all say, the world is going to hell,” Swanner said of the newspaper. “I barely read them anymore.”

However, the headline that day was fairly optimistic: “Price Cuts Spur Home Sales.”

Swanner has hope, too, even though business is down 40 percent.

“This is not the end of the world or the United States,” Swanner said. “This is the worst recession we’ve been in in my lifetime. The system will fix itself. There will be people who make it. There will be prosperity, but there is going to be a lot of collateral damage and carnage.”

‘I don’t like not producing’

Through the window of Swanner’s Sylva office the sawmill yard is seen but there are no forklifts moving, no loading trucks filled with boards, no workers walking about like there would normally be — just stacks of wood sitting in what appears to be a ghost town.

The empty work yard is reminiscent of what is going on around the country with few people working and fewer products being produced.

“It is a ghost town,” said Swanner, a tall burly man who hates to see his beloved hardwood industry in the pits.

“I don’t like not producing, I don’t like not working,” said Swanner, as he walked around the sawmill yard.

In January Swanner made the tough decision to cut his 75 employees’ hours to 18 a week compared to their usual 40 or more. Now employees only work Monday and Tuesday — the rest of the week the plant is closed.

“Until sales increase, we can’t run more,” Swanner said. “It’s sad seeing the economy this way. The men are not getting the hours they need.”

The cutback hours will continue into February, Swanner said.

Businesses associated with the logging industry are hurting also. The sawmill once contracted with three trucking companies to haul lumber, but now there is only one.

“You’re literally looking at the death of an entire industry,” said Swanner as he leaned back in his office chair.

He noted that a sawmill in Canton that was in business for 70 years just closed.

“Numerous loggers are sitting at the house, and the people working for them are sitting at the house,” Swanner said.

The sawmill’s employees are not the type of people who enjoy not working.

“There’s not a man or woman out here that wants unemployment or welfare,” Swanner said.

Swanner also has a strong work ethic and despises greedy CEOs like a recent corporate bank president who allegedly spent $1.2 million remodeling an office and Bernie Madoff, who masterminded a scam that bilked millions from investors.

There is a mindset of greed in the United States and a certain class of people with no work ethic, he said. But for the most part he believes Americans are still hard workers.

‘Mad at the system’

Sawmill yard supervisor Sandy Johnson has worked at the sawmill for 37 years and has never seen the economy this bad.

Since 1946, the sawmill has been in steady operation. Some employees have grandfathers who worked at the plant.

But today, as Johnson walked around the yard he said the employees worry about making their home and car payments.

When the tough decision was made to cut workers’ hours, Swanner gathered each shift at a safety meeting and broke the news in person.

“They’re not mad at us, they’re mad at the system,” Swanner said. They know what’s going on in the economy and the world.”

The sawmill relies on global demand to survive, shipping hardwood to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Italy and China.

Now the entire worldwide market is in the dump. In fact, he said the economy is probably worse in Europe than it is in the United States.

“Every market in the world is gone,” he said. “There is no international business being done.”

However, there was some good news last week. Three loads — white oak, maple and poplar — were just shipped to Israel.

Pointing out tall stacks of wood in the yard under canopies, Swanner said there usually isn’t so much inventory. Some of the boards are bundled with double straps of wire, meaning it will be shipped overseas, and the other boards only have a single strap to show that they stay in the United States.

Stimulus strategy

Prior to the economic downturn, Swanner’s company produced about 16 million to 17 million board feet a year, but now it’s down by half. Something needs to be done to stimulate the home building industry to help turn things around, he said.

The $819 billion stimulus bill passed by the House and under review by the Senate this week needs to create jobs, he said.

He disagrees with where some of the money would be spent, saying it won’t do the country any good. He noted that the bill plans to spend $135 million fighting sexually transmitted diseases and $50 million for the arts.

That money should go toward creating real jobs, Swanner said.

“We need to put someone to work fixing an electrical grid,” Swanner said.

Projects here at home like fixing an archaic sewer system in Waynesville might be a good idea, he said.

Politicians need to set aside partisan politics and work for the betterment of the country, he said. Issues like abortion and gay marriage need to take a back seat.

And laying blame for the country’s poor economy can wait, he said.

“I don’t care whose fault it is; we’re in a crisis,” he said, adding that he doesn’t care if the blame goes all the way back to Reagan.

Swanner thinks Obama will make a good president, but the challenge is taking a fragmented Congress and making them work together.

Congress, he said, has got to understand that they were sent there for the betterment of the country.

It is regrettable that the United States went away from being a manufacturing country to a “financial services” county, Swanner said. The country needs to get back to producing jobs like electricians, miners and plumbers, he said.

“We need to manufacture something and sell it,” he said. “We don’t need to lose that.”

One of the problems in this country is that math and science scores for American children have “plummeted,” he said, resulting in fewer engineers.

No matter what happens with the proposed $819 billion stimulus bill, there will still be a massive debt passed on to Swanner’s children and other generations, he said.

Swanner remembers the recession of 1982 and 1991, but the difference with this downturn, he said, is that it is bigger worldwide.

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