BANGOR – Five years ago, businessman Christopher Hutchins thought it was important to save two struggling Maine traditions – garden tool and ax maker Snow and Nealley and the Maine Times newspaper.
Now, after being shut down and started up again, this time as a magazine, Maine Times continues to be published but is not making a profit yet, he said.
And just recently, most of the operations at Snow and Nealley were shut down in what is likely to be a permanent move because the company was unprofitable. Seven people lost their jobs and were not given severance packages.
“I hated to be the one to terminate Snow and Nealley,” said Hutchins in an interview Thursday. “I hated to be the one to lay off people. It ain’t a pretty picture when you can’t cover the cost of your employees with sales.”
Hutchins purchased Snow and Nealley in October 1998, six months after its former owners announced that they were considering moving the then 134-year-old company to the Rochester-Dover area of New Hampshire. The former owners also were in negotiations with an unidentified West Coast company at the time.
Hutchins paid “an indefinite sum” of money for the high-end manufacturer of gardening and woodworking tools and axes, and he was proud of his acquisition. More than 40 people were employed at the company’s facility on Main Street, and eventually they were moved to new digs on Summer Street, right next to Hutchins’ South Street office building near the Penobscot River.
Mainstay Snow and Nealley was staying in Maine, Hutchins boasted on Oct. 6, 1998, the day he purchased the company.
Now a salesperson is all that’s left to sell and ship off the remaining inventory, and Hutchins is interviewing people to hire a sole blacksmith to continue to make axes at a different location. He is negotiating with three people who are interested in leasing the Summer Street building.
“The ax business, although not profitable, is what Snow and Nealley has been all about since 1869,” Hutchins said. “The axes these days aren’t made to be axes. They’re made more to be gifts. They’re presents. So I think I can reposition the ax business.”
Hutchins said he “gave it the old college try” to keep Snow and Nealley viable, but the state’s poor business climate and inexpensive manufacturing overseas made it impossible. Low-priced imports from China, such as garden hoes that sell for $1.98 and are produced by people who are paid $3 a day, are flooding the market.
“It’s killing us,” Hutchins said. “You can’t compete with that. You get to a point where you’ve put enough money in and you say you shouldn’t spend any more on this project. We needed to get out of the business.”
It’s not just manufacturers that are hurting, Hutchins said, but retailers, too. Numerous national-chain hardware stores were asking for 120-day terms, and that was tough for Snow and Nealley to cover when money already was tied up in inventory that had been sitting in storage for five months.
“It’s a tough business,” he said. Hutchins would not disclose how much money the business had lost.
Hutchins calls Maine, “the most expensive place in the world to do business,” because its tax structure is costly, prohibiting businesses from investing more into expansion or employees. Companies try to pay decent wages, he said, but there seems to be a philosophy within state government that “Maine people shouldn’t have any money to spend except on food and shelter.”
Mainers, he said, want to preserve the state’s traditions and hold on to century-old companies, but the state’s business climate makes that difficult and they’re dying or shutting down.
“Snow and Nealley, like the Maine Times, is a wonderful Maine name and it shouldn’t die,” Hutchins said. “I really think we should preserve some of these things that are our heritage. But then we say the state should do it. We are the state.”
Besides Snow and Nealley and the Maine Times, Hutchins owns Alternative Energy, which was founded in 1974. His father, Curtis Neally, started Dead River Co., an oil, gas, timberland and commercial development firm.