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Vermont Castings President: Despite Plant Closure, Better Days Ahead

Steve Zind
Vermont Castings' Randolph foundry will be the company's sole Vermont facility once a Bethel assembly plant closes. But company president Ricardo Leon says Vermont Castings' fortunes are improving.

For years, Vermont Castings has been passed from owner to owner and the results have not been good. By all accounts, what was once the world’s largest manufacturer of cast iron wood stoves has lost ground to competitors and suffered quality problems.

But the company’s president says despite plans to close the Vermont Castings Bethel assembly plant, Vermont Castings’ fortunes are improving.  

Ricardo Leon says it’s not news to the company’s employees that the Bethel plant will close sometime in the next year. He says they were told of the decision some time ago and the plans have been in the works for two years.

“I would say it’s just coming to fruition,” Leon says.

Leon led a Paris, Kentucky-based group that purchased Vermont Castings in 2013. To keep it afloat, the previous owner forgave $100 million in debt and Leon shut down facilities in Texas, Canada and Mexico.

He says at the time, the company was in dire straits.  

Last October, the company was sold to Hearth and Home Technologies (HHT), the maker of Harman wood stoves. Leon continues to run the day to day operations.

Some of the jobs in Bethel will be moved to the Vermont Castings foundry in Randolph, but about 40 full-time and seasonal stove assembly jobs will be eliminated.

Some of the jobs in Bethel will be moved to the Vermont Castings foundry in Randolph, but about 40 full-time and seasonal stove assembly jobs will be eliminated.

The company says 130 people are employed at its Randolph foundry and 80 are employed in Bethel. The assembly operations will be moved to the HHT facilities in Pennsylvania.

“They make pellet stoves and wood stoves there. They’re cast iron and they are very, very high quality stoves, which is consistent with what Vermont Castings’ brand should be,” says Leon.

He says the company’s priorities have changed under new ownership, but he acknowledges that the quality of Vermont Castings products and service declined when it was fighting for its survival.  

“Our strategy was cash first, cost savings second and customer third. That’s during a very difficult time in the history of the company,” he says.

The result has been a declining share of the wood stove market as competitors develop new products and as pellet stoves, which Vermont Castings does not make, erode traditional stove sales.

"Our strategy was cash first, cost savings second and customer third. That's during a very difficult time in the history of the company." - Ricardo Leon, Vermont Castings president

“Vermont Castings is under-represented in the wood cast iron category in the market. For the brand recognition that it still has, we’re very small compared to where a company like ours should be,” he says.

Leon says the fact that Castings is now owned by another stove producer, which itself is a subsidiary of a much larger company, HNI Corporation, gives it the resources to restore the quality of Vermont Castings products.

Even before the purchase, the foundry was making stove parts for Hearth and Home. Leon says now it will be doing more work for the parent company.

The purchase also gives HHT an important asset: A foundry, which the company does not have. Because of the expense and difficulty of siting and building new foundries, it seems the future of the Randolph facility is secure.

In an interview with the industry publication Hearth and Home, HHT president Brad Determan described Vermont Castings' prior ownership as “the bankers and lawyers crowd.”

He said the new ownership feels it can stabilize and grow Vermont Castings.

Determan told Hearth and Home it has been, “painful to watch how mistreated [Vermont Castings] has been for the last 10-plus years. I think it still has major legs and opportunity and we're delighted to have it in our portfolio.”

There was a time years ago when the quality and cachet of the Vermont Castings drew thousands to an annual "owner’s outing." 

Leon says the company hopes to revive the spirit of the outings when it celebrates Vermont Castings’ 40th anniversary in Randolph this summer.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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