PARIS – Three months after heavy snow collapsed half of the roof of the recently opened KBS plant in Waterford, production will be back online Monday.

Despite the folding of Oxford Homes, Maine Home Center, Burlington Homes and Waterford Homes, the move by KBS to reopen the plant signals that the modular home industry is not dead in the Oxford Hills area, KBS general manager Ray Atkisson said.

“The economy is not as bad as it looks,” said Atkisson, who has rehired each of the approximately 45 employees who were laid off and will add another five or so in addition to 120 employees at the Paris plant.

The reason is simple, Atkisson said.

“Here at KBS we’ve worked real hard to get the commercial field,” he said of projects including a $12 million townhouse/condo project in Oxford, Mass., 48 modular townhouse units for student housing at Thomas College and townhouses for the Chelmsford, Mass., Housing Authority. Last week, the company signed a letter of intent with Dartmouth College to construct the Rivercrest redevelopment project in Hanover, which will be used in part to house teachers and faculty.

The proof is in the numbers, Atkisson said. Three years ago, the commercial base was 20 percent of KBS business. Last year that number rose to 35 to 40 percent and commercial business is expected to be half of the company’s business this year.

Part of the process of building the business was a commitment to improve safety in the workplace, which in turn helped production, Atkisson said.

Lisa Gleeson, spokesman for MEMIC, formerly Maine Employees Mutual Insurance Co., said the company was awarded one of six outstanding workplace safety awards this year after KBS officials asked MEMIC to come into the Paris plant to address workplace safety issues in 2004 and then worked to make improvements. The company was judged against 22,000 members throughout New England.

“They have a better system in place to move products more efficiently,” she said.

When Atkisson was hired by owner Bill Farnham five years ago, he was told to either prepare the facility for a sale or turn a profit. Atkisson said he chose to make money. By assembling a top notch team and increasing the commercial business base, Atkisson said the then near-bankrupt company saw $9 million in business the first year rise to $31 million this year. The Waterford plant is paid in full and Farnham, who was an investor in KBS previously, now is sole owner.

Today, the company has enough work lined up to bring its employees through next June or July, he said.

Despite the positive note, Atkisson admits there are still issues that have to be addressed on a state level, such as health insurance costs that are driving many companies out of business.

Atkisson said he sent Gov. John Baldacci a letter asking for help, and he never got a response.

Fuel costs are also taking a toll. Atkisson said he locked into a heating fuel price of $2.29 a gallon last year but this year that price has escalated to $4.60 a gallon. He said come next winter he will not turn on the heat. He will find alternative heating measures, whether it’s solar, wood or whatever. “I don’t plan on turning on the furnace,” he said.

Long term, Atkisson said he believes the residential market will come back to the Oxford Hills modular manufacturing business by next spring. But he is concerned that without a solid economic base in the local area, employees will not be willing to settle and raise families and work in the area.

Still he is encouraged about where KBS is heading.

“I don’t think I have any competitors,” Atkisson said.


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