WATERFORD — For the first time in several years, the local KBS Building Systems plant is staying open this winter, retaining about 50 employees.
“We’re running at capacity,” Chief Financial Officer Steve Miller said.
Last winter, 25 employees of the Waterford plant were laid off until May. Although many of those workers were put to work at the main plant on Route 26 in Paris, officials said the lack of commercial building work in Maine and overhead costs in the Waterford facility, including a propane heating system that costs $700 per day to operate, were major factors in that decision.
But this year, Miller said commercial projects have rebounded to the point of retaining the Waterford plant’s employees throughout the winter along with the 136 employees who work in the main plant. And, he said, a new wood-burning furnace has also replaced the propane system.
“It was killing us,” Miller said of the “astronomical” costs the propane heating system required in the large, high-ceiling building that frequently has to have its doors opened.
The new system, which was put in place at the end of December, will use scrap wood from the KBS projects as fuel, further decreasing the costs, Miller said. “It just makes sense.”
“It was required to keep that building open all winter,” he said of the new heating system.
Although Miller declined to discuss specific projects that are enabling the Waterford plant to remain open throughout the winter, they are all New England-based commercial projects.
Last year, General Manager Ray Atkisson, who is out of the country this week and unavailable to comment, said KBS had several contracts in Massachusetts, including a 238-unit apartment complex in Lunenberg and 75 units in Hopkinton.
In late 2007, KBS Building Systems purchased the former Waterford Homes property in Waterford from a Massachusetts firm. Waterford Homes, a two-year-old, high-end manufacturer, defaulted on mortgage and loan payments and closed in 2006.
The 17-acre property, with a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing plant at 947 Waterford Road, was reopened for business early the next year with some 20 new hires, boosting KBS’s production by as much as a third.
But officials said the poor economy forced the plant to shut down about six to eight months later and to lay off its employees in that plant. It reopened again in 2008, but shut down temporarily when heavy snow caused the roof to collapse.
In the 2009-10 winter season, more than 60 jobs were lost and the Waterford plant was shut down again when production lagged. But last May, the plant was reopened and about 40 to 50 employees rehired when new commercial projects were landed and expected to bring the company through to 2011.
“It’s been very good to us. Knock on wood,” Miller said of the business in general.