Booneville — “It’s been a good deal for us,” said Tom Watkins, vice president of plant operations for Quartet Manufacturing in this northeast Mississippi town.
Watkins could have been speaking about any number of things when he made that statement, but specifically he was talking about a deal between this town’s five banks to lend the Prentiss County Development Association $1.1 million to purchase the first building in its 25-year history.
In return, Quartet agreed to lease the 150,000-square-foot Schweiger building for five years with a purchase option, and the additional space has allowed the company to further increase its investment in this job-hungry community.
“Our business is growing,” Watkins said. “It’s fun. We’ve been very fortunate to expand in this business.”
What else Watkins could have easily referred to as a good deal was the North American Free Trade Agreement, because ultimately, Watkins said, he gives credit to NAFTA for helping create the climate that allowed his company to buy a Mexican calculator manufacturing company, shut down its operation there and bring the warehousing portion to Booneville.
“It is a little bit odd,” Watkins said of what has been described as a reverse NAFTA by some, “but that’s the way NAFTA is suppose to work. It lets the best people who can do the job do the job. And we can certainly compete.”
Quartet makes a variety of office products. The Booneville operation, which is spread out over 18 buildings, covers more than 1 million square feet and employs 1,300, predominately makes cork boards, Watkins said. Each day the operation turns out nearly 24,000 boards.
The latest deal came down when Quartet’s parent company, Chicago-based General Binding Corporation, or GBC, which purchased Quartet in January 1997, purchased competitor Ibico.
Due to the acquisition Ibico’s calculator operation in Acuna, Mexico was closed and distribution, warehousing and product returns were sent to Booneville while the manufacturing operation went to an existing Quartet plant in Laredo, Texas.
Already the largest employer in the county, the deal further enhanced Quartet’s presence, brought in more jobs, allowed the PCDA to venture into a new area and purchase a vacant building and created a healthy alliance between the city’s major financial institutions, said Doug Mansell, PCDA’s executive director.
Mansell said purchasing the Schweiger building from Bassett Furniture in early April, which had closed down earlier this year, was a big proactive step for the PCDA, an organization that since its inception in 1973 has mainly served as a technical assistance entity.
“It was just time,” Mansell said. “If we are going to achieve our growth we have to develop new ways of income.”
Hopefully, this step is just the first towards someday purchasing land and becoming eligible for grants to install the needed infrastructure that will attract more industry, Mansell said.
The announcement by Quartet, and PCDA’s new goals, come at a good time. Over the last several months the county was faced with the closing of not only Bassett Furniture, which left nearly 200 out of work, but the closing of Prentiss Manufacturing, one of the county’s oldest and at one time one of the largest, manufacturing concerns. In its heyday, Prentiss Manufacturing., a cut and sew operation, employed over 1,500. But when it closed last month like so many other companies in the apparel industry, it employed barely 120, Mansell said.
The loss of those two companies has driven the county’s unemployment up from 4.7% in December to 10.3% as of March, according to the Mississippi Employment Security Commission.
Mark Tapp, vice president of Farmers and Merchants Bank in Booneville, said the expansion of Quartet couldn’t have come at a better time.
Tapp said the deal was significant because it simply wouldn’t have been possible without the participation of all the banks who came together to make the money available so the PCDA could get the building and lease it to Quartet, which was Quartet’s preferred option. In addition to Farmers and Merchants, Peoples Bank & Trust, Deposit Guaranty, Bank of Mississippi and First American, all loaned an equal share — $220,000 —to make the deal possible.
In turn, Tapp said, “the development association benefits because if we could help put the two together we could create 300 jobs. Without a good, strong community, your banks aren’t as strong,” he said.