Progress in Panola

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 3, 2009

FPE president Ed Brucker (left) has adjusted to foreign competition and economic uncertainty with a burst of ideas about creating new demand for the company’s product. The increased demand has required more workers whose numbers had grown to over 250 this week, much to the approval of Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons. The Panolian photo by John Howell Sr.

In fragile economy, company adds workers to meet demand

By John Howell Sr.

(Editor’s note: Panola Partnership Chief Executive Officer Sonny Simmons and publisher John Howell Sr. have planned a series of visits to Panola manufacturers to learn about planned expansions and increased production. The first visit came this week at Framed Picture Enterprise.)

“There are so many opportunities out there,” Framed Picture Enterprise (FPE) president Ed Brucker said Wednesday.

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Brucker’s offered his observation as he led Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons and a reporter through the firm’s sprawling manufacturing facilities on Highway 6 West and on Pearson Street near Van Voris.

With the statement, he defined a business plan that is meeting the dual challenges of competition from Chinese manufacturers and the current economic downturn.

Both were factors in reducing the demand for the Batesville factory’s framed art and mirrors, eventually reducing plant employment to around 80 people. The turnaround that began last year stemmed from changing and expanding product lines, and finding more outlets for those products. The turnaround coincided with consolidation of production facilities, bringing the company’s poster art framing operation from Memphis to Batesville.

On Wednesday if it appeared that chaos reigned in parts of the plant, it was purposeful chaos. “We’ve brought 200,000 square feet into 100,000 square feet,” Brucker said.

The number of Framed Picture Enterprise employees that had risen to around 200 in early January has risen to more than 250 this week, human resources director Dennis Erb said.

On top of consolidation, six presentations are scheduled this month. Presentations involve moving a large quantity of product samples to a location near the customer — in this case New York.

“Most buyers don’t want to leave the office,” Brucker explained. “We didn’t know we were going to make all these presentations at one time. … When they say, ‘Yeah, come,’ we’ve got to go,” Brucker continued.

The customers that Brucker names include almost any chain of retail businesses in the country that sell home furnishings either in their stores or online. In addition, there’s Blockbuster, Inc. which offers framed posters from the Batesville facility in its stores as well as online.

Blockbuster’s agreement to sell the Framed Picture Enterprise posters, Bucker said, includes a requirement that the Batesville manufacturer furnish stands on which to display the art. Initially, the stands were made from cardboard.

“Now they’re saying ‘permanent fixtures,’” Bucker continues, pointing to a prototype display stand made from the same medium density fiberboard that its frames are made from. The company will soon began producing 19,000 of the stands for Blockbuster stores, and Brucker sees opportunity in the challenge.

“Permanent fixtures — that means something to me.”

The relationship between FPE and Blockbuster has become symbiotic. Last year, Blockbuster — “It’s a great company with great people,” Brucker said — recognized the Batesville manufacturer with its “Vendor of the Year” award.

The success of Blockbuster online sales of framed posters “has led to a discussion of a catalog (featuring FPE’s complete poster line) in Blockbuster,” Brucker said, to offer customers additional framed products from Framed Picture Enterprise.

“Our business has changed,” Brucker continued.

Where once the facility’s products were sold primarily to four or five major customers, the company has diversified its products to appeal to a broader range of customers and outlets.

Rapid adaptability to market changes and the vertical integration of the production has allowed FPE to take business back from manufacturers in China. The lead time for an order placed with a manufacturer in China exceeds two months and must be paid for in advance, Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons said.

FPE’s flexibility has also benefited a Virginia mirror manufacturer. The mirrors formerly framed in the Batesville plant had been purchased in China until recently when the Bruckers and the Virginia factory negotiated a mutually suitable arrangement.

“They gave up a little, we gave up a little,” Brucker said of the negotiation that not only realized another opportunity but established another mutually beneficial relationship with a U. S. manufacturer.