BEATRICE -- The 5 p.m. shift change marked the start of a somber march for Husqvarna Turf Care employees.
The Swedish company said Thursday it will close the plant that makes mowers and specialty lawn care equipment by the end of the year. Operations will move to Orangeburg and Columbia, S.C., both much closer to the company's U.S. headquarters in North Carolina.
While many employees left the Beatrice plant silently, some stopped to pass on the news to second-shift workers.
Husqvarna has 390 employees here. The company did not say how many are full-time permanent and how many are part-time or seasonal.
"I'm completely disappointed," said Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce President Lori Warner. "It will have a detrimental effect on Beatrice as a whole."
Nolan Penner, who started with the company's accounting division in March, said the 10:30 a.m. announcement "sucked the air out of the room."
"There was a lot of disbelief," he said in a phone interview. "Everyone couldn't believe it was happening."
Employees weren't angry so much as shocked the plant will close, he said.
"From my desk, you can hear stuff going on in the plant, but after that meeting you couldn't hear anything. They shut down the line. There was silence that last hour before lunch."
Penner said he understands the reasoning, but that doesn't change his concern for employees.
"You can't control the economy. They told us it was all for efficiency, which I get," he said. "But I feel sorry for all those people that this is their livelihood -- they have been entrenched in it for years, and now they turn and say, ‘Now what?'"
The news is especially bitter for Beatrice, which already lays claim to an unemployment rate of 6.0 percent, compared with a state average of 5 percent; the national average is 9.9 percent.
Nebraska Labor Commissioner Catherine Lang said her agency will offer services to employees who will lose their jobs.
Their first stop, she said, is the workforce development office at Southeast Community College-Beatrice.
"We will begin a rapid-response service," she said.
Lang said she assumes Husqvarna will help employees get services and information regarding employment opportunities.
"Working in cooperation with the company, we can conduct meetings with groups of individuals that have received layoff or plant closure notices," she said.
"They will be understandably anxious and concerned," she said, adding that the company will answer follow-up questions by phone or website.
"They need to retool their skills and get back into the workforce," Lang said. "A plant closing like this in a community like Beatrice is significant. It will have a huge impact in the community, not only in employees being laid off, but businesses in the Beatrice area."
Said Beatrice Mayor Dennis Schuster: "I'm very disappointed, shocked. They'd been working almost seven days a week on two shifts for probably the last two months. That tells me they've got quite a bit of business."
A week before Christmas the company announced it had hired 60 people and planned to hire 100 more because of new demand, according to Journal Star files.
"We're trying to increase our production. Basically all of our lines, there's a real influx of orders coming in," Husqvarna Vice President of Operations Charlie Rogers said then.
A news release issued Thursday noted that Husqvarna had previously communicated its intention to make changes in the U.S. and Europe to eliminate overlap and duplication, reduce costs and improve its competitiveness.
A release posted on the investor relations portion of the company's website said the consolidation will save the company about 40 million Swedish Krona, which translates to about $5 million per year.
John Marchionda, vice president of marketing, said some management employees in Beatrice will be offered a chance to stay with the company. He did not say how many.
"Job offers for those identified as being needed will be extended," he said.
Husqvarna has been in Beatrice since 1999, when it bought Yazoo/Kees Power Equipment. In 2000, it added the Denver-based BlueBird line of turf care equipment, and it moved BlueBird operations to Beatrice in 2002.
Construction of a 274,000-square-foot plant near the airport was completed five years ago. At a 2004 groundbreaking ceremony, Husqvarna President Henric Andersson said the new plant was built to deal with expansion.
Now, Beatrice officials are scrambling to find another large employer that might be in need of a new manufacturing facility.
"The immediate issue is, we need to work on it very hard, a way to get someone in that building," said Mayor Schuster. "Not to beat a dead horse, but over the last 10 years I've been talking about how we need to diversify our economy. We have to stop relying strictly on manufacturing here."
Local Valentino's owner Steph Perkins said the town will have to find a way to bounce back.
"I believe we're a strong community ... but this is pretty major. This community likes to help each other, we want to stay vibrant."
Reach Daily Sun Editor Patrick Ethridge at 402-223-5233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach reporter Chris Dunker at email@example.com.