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Maine Wreath Maker Weaves Through Tough Economy

 

A major wreath maker on Maine's rustic coast is expanding this holiday season and hiring additional workers despite the down economy and tough competition in the industry.

Whitney Wreath kicked off the Christmas rush by opening a new, state-of-the-art facility in Whitneyville, Maine. The 75,000 square foot warehouse, complete with a multitude of conveyor belts and wreath binding machines, allows workers to whip together a finished bow and berry decked wreath in roughly 10 minutes.

David Whitney, the company founder, said more than 150 local workers helped build the facility and business is booming.

"I find this year that business is showing some strength. Our retail is up about 18 percent. Our customers, QVC and L.L. Bean, they're both up," said Whitney, who got started in the business as a teenager selling wreaths from the back of a pick-up truck. "I hear that wholesales are up, that wholesalers are coming back and asking for more and that's just a great sign for the industry as well as the economy."

At the peak of the holiday crunch the company employs 500 seasonal workers who create the wreaths, mini-trees and centerpieces sold throughout the nation. The expansion has helped generate five new full-time positions within the company and dozens of additional holiday jobs, including 70 new "tippers" who go out into the Maine wilds and snip the tips of branches to provide balsam for the production lines.

Whitney believes there will always be a market for the company's holiday goods, even when consumers are counting pennies.

"You might not buy a fur coat or you might not buy a high-priced electrical item but you're going to have a wreath on your door and you're going to have a centerpiece on your table," said Whitney.

New and returning hires are grateful for Whitney's success.

Joyce Howland was recently laid off from her job as a clerk at an office supply store in nearby Machias, Maine. Now she's a tally keeper, ensuring the festive supplies at Whitney Wreath stay on track.

"What it means to work here is being able to pay my bills and making some extra money for Christmas," said Howland. "It's very hard to find jobs up here."

Jesse Bunker is among thousands of Maine residents who have made a living by working seasonal jobs. He usually picks blueberries in the warmer months. Now Bunker is among Whitney's newest full-time workers.

"The seasonal positions around here are mainly what people here have to live off of, from lobster fishing to clamming," said Bunker. "A few lucky ones are actually able to hold a full-time position but for the ones that don't, these seasonal jobs are what really makes them able to make it through the year."

Wreath making is big business in Maine where millions of the traditional balsam fir models are assembled and shipped across the country; however, while the greenery is a well-loved symbol of the season, it's not all 'peace and joy' in this competitive industry.

In 2009, Whitney Wreath picked up the contract with L.L. Bean, beating out another Maine wreath maker who previously held the deal, the Worcester Wreath Company owned by Morrill Worcester. Whitney's expansion plans were initially stalled when Worcester sued over a right of way along the new warehouse. A settlement was reached but the legal wrangling continues. Worcester is now suing Whitney over a patented mini-tree design, arguing the competitor's tabletop tree looks too similar.

The situation is as sticky as tree sap and yet to be decided so Whitney stays focused on the holiday business at hand, offering a few simple words of wisdom to fellow entrepreneurs, "don't give up. Never loose sight of your margins and know your costs."

He hopes the new warehouse and shipping facility will draw business to the area and create year-round opportunities for workers.

"We want to be employing people twelve months out of the year here at Whitney Wreath and I think we have some tremendous capabilities of doing so," said Whitney.

Click for more Fox News On the Job Hunt stories

Molly Line joined Fox News Channel as a Boston-based correspondent in January 2006.

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