LEXINGTON — When Fleetwood Homes closed here in 2000, it was a big blow for the 500 employees and the economy of Holmes County where 32% of the population lives below the poverty level. The plant had been there since 1969 producing manufactured housing and was the largest employer in the county.
“It was very important to the area and retailers told us it really hurt the economy,” says Harold Weaver, president of Lexington Homes, the company now operating at the site. “We made the decision to buy the facility and got a group of local investors together.”
With local backing and Weaver at the helm, Lexington Homes purchased the facility in August 2004. Other principals include Gene Rogers, Mike Sullivan and Matt Riley. Riley and Sullivan worked together at Fleetwood Homes and the others had worked together in other operations.
“The name is important because it’s local. It’s the city’s and the county’s company,” said Riley, who’s in sales and serves as secretary/treasurer of the corporation. “The plant was producing a good product and was known in the industry. I can’t express how devastating it was to the economy when the first plant closed.”
Weaver says the trained labor force, existing facilities and easy access to markets via Interstate 55 were the impetus to begin Lexington Homes. “The area was hopeful a Nissan supplier would come in but that never happened,” he said. “We talked to local businessmen and felt if something happened we would have to do it ourselves.”
The plant had been gutted with all equipment removed and sat vacant for four years. Beginning with 60 employees in 2004, Lexington Homes has grown to 324 employees.
“We also knew there was a need for this affordable product,” said Gene Rogers, vice president and sales manager. “The market was there and we had the experience and knowledge of this industry. Sales have been fantastic.”
The manufacturer began two years ago with 25 retailers for its product and has expanded to 90 retailers in eight states.
“Our goal is to do $50 million in sales this year,” Rogers said. “Last year we exceeded our goal and increased sales over the previous year.”
Mike Sullivan, vice president, said in the beginning the company was happy to build six homes per day. “Now we’re up to building 10 each day,” he said. “We’re definitely here to stay.”
Looking to increase daily production and be a part of the housing recovery in the counties damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Lexington Homes has designed a 664-square-foot cottage for quick, affordable housing. It’s called the Lexington Cottage and was introduced to the public at a recent Recovery Expo in Biloxi.
“We feel that our plants are not producing at full capacity. We’re producing 10 units per day but we have the capacity for 18 to 25 units per day,” Rogers said. “By developing this new product, the cottage, we can do something different and continue our other production.”
The cottage offers the feel of a large, open area and has a living room, fully-equipped kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom, hookup for a stackable washer/dryer unit and a front porch. It is built to the state’s design codes and can withstand winds of up to 130 miles per hour. Officials with Lexington Homes say the cottage will provide a sturdy, aesthetically pleasing housing alternative to the FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes currently in use.
“The Lexington Cottage is an excellent housing option for people affected by Hurricane Katrina, and for those who, unfortunately, might lose their homes or suffer major damage from future storms,” Rogers said.
The cottage can be located on the rear of a lot, out of the way, to be used as temporary housing. Later it can be converted into a guesthouse or studio, moved to a new site or offered as rental property.
“We got a great response on the cottage at the expo. It went over very well,” Rogers said. “Retailers are getting calls about it. We had one ready and it sold the next day.”
He says Lexington Homes can sell the cottage through its network of retailers or the state or FEMA. The company hopes to receive a FEMA contract to manufacture the temporary housing units and will bid on a contract.
“We’re waiting on the government and think they’ll be ready in October,” Mike Sullivan said. “We can start gearing up for whatever they want us to build. We will hire more people if we get a cottage contract.”
Riley says the employees of Lexington Homes are excited about the possibility of helping the Coast and being a part of the recovery. “They asked a lot of questions when we returned from the show,” he said. “Right now we’re waiting to see what the state and FEMA will do.”<.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.