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Former Tobacco Workers Back On The Job

General Tobacco opens its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Mayodan, N.C., offering new jobs to veterans of the industry.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) -- Terry Shelton has felt the pain of losing a job in the tobacco industry, having been let go by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in the late 1980s after nine years.
But even after taking another job and working for 19 years with Parkdale Mills Inc. at its Walnut Cove plant, Shelton never got tobacco manufacturing out of his blood.
The Winston-Salem Journal reports that when General Tobacco said last June that it was moving from Miami and opening its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Mayodan to be closer to the heart of domestic farms and production, Shelton knew he wanted in.
''It's a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a tobacco company establishing a foundation in Rockingham County and North Carolina,'' said Shelton, who works on a filter machine. ''It's a great fit for me. I always enjoyed working in tobacco, I'm getting to work the hours I want, and I moved into an industry that has more certainty than the one I left.''
General was founded in 1997 and is the sixth largest U.S. tobacco manufacturer, with $300 million in sales in 2007. It specializes in discount cigarettes, with Bronco, GT One and Silver as its best-known brands.
General began production at a former Unifi Inc. textile plant in March and is operating two product lines with new equipment. It plans to add a second shift in May as part of eventually having a work force of 200. It is eligible for a combined $3 million in economic incentives from Rockingham County and the city of Mayodan over eight years, beginning in 2010.
Shelton's story is shared by many of the 62 employees that General hired locally to start production at its $55 million plant.
That's on purpose, said Edgard Aguilar, the marketing director for General and one of eight officials who moved to the Triad with the company.
''While we're definitely committed to hiring new employees, it was essential that we started production with tobacco-industry veterans,'' Aguilar said.
Some of the first hires by General were recent victims of job cuts at Triad tobacco manufacturers, while others took an early retirement, got bored and wanted to be part of something new, Aguilar said.
Aguilar includes himself, a 30-year industry veteran, in that category.
''Imagine that, being at South Beach and getting bored,'' he said with a chuckle. ''But here I am because I believe in the possibilities that this company has to offer adult smokers, the industry, and now, this local community.''
Paul Bernasek of Lexington was one of the 1,700 Reynolds employees affected by the September 2003 job cut -- the largest in Forsyth County in at least the past 20 years. He had been in the company's new-product technology and tobacco-blending units.
Bernasek kept his hand in the industry primarily by serving as a consultant, which meant plenty of flights to out-of-state manufacturers.
''When I heard about General from an article in the newspaper, I became intrigued because I wanted to get off the road,'' Bernasek said. ''When I took a tour of the plant, it spoke huge volumes to me about management's commitment to tobacco manufacturing.
''Their decision to bring in people with at least 20 years of tobacco-manufacturing experience was key as well since you've got to have that kind of experience to run a plant like this,'' he said.
Bernasek, who commutes an hour each way to work, said that being based in Mayodan will not hurt General's chances at hiring industry veterans.
''This is tobacco country, and I promise you they have not scratched the surface for employees in this region,'' Bernasek said.
Dwight Lake, the mayor of Mayodan, said that the local community is grateful for ''the shot in the arm'' that General's plant represents.
It would be understandable if Rockingham residents were hesitant about embracing any manufacturer these days.
The county has lost at least 7,661 manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years, including 1,182 from American Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Corp. from February 1994 to July 1996. But with Rockingham's unemployment rate jumping from 5.5 percent in December to 6.7 percent in February, new jobs in the community are a blessing, said Graham Pervier, the president of the Rockingham County Partnership for Economic and Tourism Development, and the former longtime Forsyth County manager.
The jobs at General are paying an average weekly wage of $750, or $39,000 a year, plus benefits, according to the governor's office.
''Just about the time we were ready to write off the legacy manufacturing industries, we are able to land a promising manufacturer like General Tobacco,'' Pervier said. ''With this plant and the Bridgestone Aircraft Tire plant opening, we believe we're turning a corner in the local economy after a pretty dismal start to the decade.''
Bridgestone Aircraft Tire (USA) Inc. has opened a $13.5 million plant in Mayodan that has created 95 jobs. Coincidentally, it also moved to North Carolina from Miami.
Ronald Denman, an executive vice president of General, said that the manufacturer's economic influence will go beyond its work force. It will buy locally grown tobacco as it transitions from tobacco in Colombia.
''There's a great local tobacco product, which means our cigarettes will go to the marketplace fresher than some of our competitors,'' Denman said. ''We did our share of due diligence on Rockingham County and Mayodan, and we determined that the location was right for us, the work force was right for us and the community was right for us.
''People are shaking our hands, thanking us for our vote of confidence in the area,'' Denman said. ''Hopefully, other companies will see what we've seen,'' he said, with the results being more jobs ''created in this community.''
Stephen Pope, the chief global-market strategist for Cantor Fitzgerald Europe, said that General's discount strategy should give the company a competitive boost in the uncertain U.S. economy.
''In normal times, smokers tend to be loyal to a specific brand as they develop a preferred taste. They appreciate a flavor,'' Pope said.
Denman said that as General expands in Mayodan, it likely will grow in sales and reputation with retailers, especially convenience stores that can be a tough nut to crack for smaller manufacturers.
''Little by little, the chains are listening to what their customers are telling them about General Tobacco,'' Denman said. ''We're in outlets such as Sam's Club, 7-11, Circle K and more tobacco stores.
''We'll put the quality and the value of our product against any cigarette out there.''
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