Monday, February 29, 2016

Basket From The Past: A Cautionary Tale

Longaberger is moving from their Big Basket Building.

Longaberger, in case you have never heard of them, was a company that made baskets.  It was started in 1973 by Dave Longaberger, whose father J.W. had made baskets in Dresden, OH in the 1920s and 1930s.  Dave began making baskets and then began having others make baskets; in 1978 he went with a direct home sales route.  The baskets were handmade, signed by the individual making them.  They branched out into iron working and ceramics.  By 1999-2000, the year of his death and the passing of his company to his daughters, the company had over 8000 employees and $1 Billion in sales.  They had numerous plants, a sort of retail shopping theme area (The Homestead), an annual gathering where the Columbus Convention Center was filled with screaming consultants and hangers on, and a regional business model built on the industry and the people that bought the products and came and visited.

In 2003, it began to fall apart.  I am not in the know why specifically, although (see below) my guess is in a tougher economic market handmade baskets (not cheap, by any stretch of the imagination) had less of an appeal.  The company was bought by an investment firm, CSVL, in 2013.  Currently (according to the news article) they have 340 full and part time employees now, only 70 of whom make baskets.

I have more than a tangential knowledge of these things.  Once upon a time, The Ravishing Mrs. TB sold Longaberger Baskets. In 2004, she and I went back to the convention (called the Bee).   We just looked - we had a basket we made when we were there.

The thing that strikes me most about the article as I read it was the memories I had of a thriving business and community.  It was not just the two or three plants that we visited, it was the regional economy that existed because of the baskets.  Restaurants, shops - all drew their life from the baskets that were made and the people that flocked like crazed groupies to buy and shop them.

I have not really thought about them in a long time other than the fact that we have their product in every room of our house (and several boxes in our garage) as well as the flatware that we use.  They are well made products and will probably last more than our lifetimes - but there are only so many that you can use.  The Ravishing Mrs. TB mentioned them going out of business and all of a sudden I had to go look.

The thing that makes me sad is that I can imagine the economic impact without even being there - one does not lay off 96% of their employees without it having a drastic impact on the regional economy.   Doing a quick Ixquick search reveals a series of news articles like mile markers on a descending path - Apparently with 3 years of our visit they were already down 65% of their employees.  The ripple effects of such a thing are staggering:  businesses and families are impacted at every level.

 I note (with a little investigation) that the Bee, their annual convention, has relocated back to Dresden, the town where the company started in the local high school - and they only expected about a 1000 attendees.

This story should serve as a grim reminder to all of the risks and costs of having economies based on single sources, especially single sources which are not really critical to any industry or any one's lifestyle.  And it should also serve as a sad warning to all about being willing to see over the horizon unflinchingly and preparing for it.

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