NEWTON — Ask someone in Newton where to find the La-Z-Boy plant, and the usual answer is, “See that water tank over there?” They point to an enormous blue tank that dominates Newton’s “skyline.” Then, “Well, just head for it.”
The street dead ends at an imposing brick structure labeled “La-Z-Boy South Plant.”
The marriage of Newton and La-Z-Boy was consummated on May 24, 1961, and both sides confirm that 40 years later, they’re still on their honeymoon.
The courtship had an inauspicious beginning when two La-Z-Boy officials arrived in downtown Newton in their pickup truck on May 9, 1960. It had taken them two days to drive from Monroe, Mich. With them were the materials to begin construction of the La-Z-Boy plant on an overgrown downtown lot where the town’s cottonseed oil mill had closed about two years before.
The actual origin for the plant was earlier in the year when La-Z-Boy founder Ed Knabusch was making those famed recliners in his Monroe, Mich., plant, but the economy and labor relations had soured and the company was struggling. He was convinced that he needed another plant, preferably in the South. He toured at least five southern states before zeroing in on Mississippi.
Elliott McMullan was mayor of Newton, one of three east central Mississippi towns being considered. He remembered going to breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion with Knabusch and then-Gov. Ross Barnett.
“I wasn’t a ‘Barnett Man,’” McMullan said, “But he was the world’s best (at recruiting industries). Mr. Knabusch told us that he’d never even met the Michigan governor.”
Paul McMullan, a cousin of the mayor’s, was then president of Newton County Bank. His recollection was that, “Newton was starved for industry and we lived with those people. It was an effort of the entire city-we put on our best face.”
Apparently the two competing towns followed suit, and all offered a BAWI (Balance Agriculture With Industry) bond issue which would provide the funds for the plant pledging the credit of the city, if necessary, in payment.
According to banker McMullan, one of the major factors in La-Z-Boy’s decision would be which town would offer the lowest interest rate on the bonds. He checked with a bond attorney and discovered that the Newton bonds would be more than 5% — the highest of the three towns.
“I made up my mind that wasn’t going to keep us from getting that industry, so I told Walter Marder (Knabusch’s site consultant) that our bank would guarantee the bonds to be at 4% interest,” McMullan recalled. “That would have blasted our bank profits, but interest rates dropped before the bonds were issued, and we didn’t lose but about $500.”
BAWI bond issues required approval of the voters. According to Mayor McMullan, “I don’t think there was a single vote against it.”
The area newspaper, the Newton County Record, devoted the entire May 24,1961, front page to the dedication of the La-Z-Boy plant. It featured pictures and bio data on all of the La-Z-Boy officers and directors and also included the program for the building dedication. Ed Knabusch, Governor Barnett and Mayor McMullan were among the speakers. A framed copy of that front page hangs on the wall of the La-Z-Boy reception lobby today.
Mayor McMullan remembers that Knabusch told the crowd that the plant may work as many as 100 people. Little did he know.
At last count, there were 1,315 employees on the payroll in a town with a population of 3,699. And Newton now has four La-Z-Boy plants with 790,000 square feet under roof. There’s a strong mutual employee-company loyalty.
According to human resources manager Chris Harris, more than one-third of the employees have been there 30 years or more. And there’s been a broad product diversification from the original recliner. That began in 1999.
“Currently we make recliners, sleep sofas, sofas and multi-seat recliner sofas,” said Dan Breeding who has been Newton plant manager for a year. He’s a native of Monroe, still the La-Z-Boy headquarters, and has been with the company for 29 years.
According to Breeding, there are nine more La-Z-Boy plants scattered throughout the U. S. with the Newton operation ranking third in size. The parent company has expanded far beyond that and has 48 more plants under various trade names. And the stock is on the NYSE.
But in Newton, La-Z-Boy stock is sky-high.
Mayor McMullan remembered that he and Ed Knabusch were on a first name basis. “Anytime we needed anything, I called him,” McMullan said. “And when he needed anything, he called me, and I’d say yes before getting it approved by the board (of aldermen). I knew they’d go along with me.”
Over the years, the city’s needs have been substantial and diverse. “They gave so many thousands of dollars a year so we could have a new library,” McMullan recalled.
The railroad depot was purchased and restored thanks to a major La-Z-Boy contribution. According to current Mayor Hamp Beatty, “The depot’s a beehive of activity, and we wouldn’t have it if it hadn’t been for La-Z-Boy. The chamber of commerce office is in it, there’s a 9 a.m. coffee club there and it has meeting facilities for as many as 250 people.”
Right next to the depot is a park dedicated to Ed Knabusch who passed away three years ago. La-Z-Boy provided the funding. And then there’s the senior citizens building which La-Z-boy gave to the city.
Plant manager Breeding said, “We are very much interested in community values and relationships. We have been in the past and will continue to be.”
Mayor Beatty responded, “They are a wonderful corporate citizen and on top of that, they’re the cornerstone of our industrial base.”
And even in today’s economic slowdown, Wilmer Whittle, the current CEO of Newton County Bank, said, “They’re steadier and more stable than any industry I know.”
And so the marriage continues.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com or (601) 485-7046.