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Staying Strong

After surviving fire, Fiber Conversion in Broadalbin confronts recession

June 21, 2009
By RODNEY MINOR, The Leader-Herald

BROADALBIN - While it might surprise those who saw it, the fire in January 2008 that destroyed a building at Fiber Conversion created less of a problem for the village company than the stubborn economic recession, company representatives say.

However, they are quick to dispel any notion the 100-year-old operation would fold.

"We have been here 100 years," Vice President Brian MacFarland said. "We plan on being here 100 more."

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Nick Terlaak-Poot, left, the sales manager for Fiber Conversion, and Brian MacFarland, vice president and co-owner, inspect processed fiber from a production line at the business in Broadalbin Wednesday.

The massive fire, which could be seen for miles from the business's East Elm Street facility, destroyed the company's main production building. While no cause was ever determined, MacFarland said there are two main sources of fire in the industry - electrical problems and friction from the machinery and materials used in production.

It was a shocking development for a business that has been in six generations of the Kissinger family. From its start in 1909 processing waste from textile industries so it could be recycled and used again, the business has become something of an institution. It processes 50 million to 100 million pounds of material per year.

Mayor Eugene Christopher said the fire at the village's largest private business raised economic concerns. "It's [Fiber Conversion] been here a long time," he said.

However, while the fire was quite the dangerous-looking spectacle, the company was able to set up another production line in one of its five other buildings, MacFarland said. The employees affected were able to shift over and keep working. The business's insurance coverered the approximately $10 million in lossess suffered from the fire.

A constant theme for the company is making sure it's lean and efficient. The fire forced the company to follow that even more, he said.

President Doug Kissinger said outside of the original equipment, which is purchased in Europe, the business is mostly self-sufficient. It even has its own machine shop to make repairs.

While the fire destroyed the building, it left the foundation in usable shape. A new building could be constructed to replace the other Continued from Page 1D

one at any time.

But that will not happen, at least in the immediate future.

MacFarland said the business was busy when the fire happened. But later in the year, as the economy slowly sank into its recession, that changed.

The business only uses about two-thirds of the production capacity it had when the fire happened, he said, but that is all it needs. It kept the roughly 25 employees it had immediately after the fire, but since the recession hit, the number has gone down to 18 through a combination of layoffs and retirements.

While work has been visible at the site of the burned building to travelers along Route 29, MacFarland said that is just some final cleanup work being done so the site can be used in the future.

"We are taking a wait-and-see attitude" about putting a new building in, he said.

MacFarland said the business could easily put its money into rebuilding the production facility. The concern is that if they sunk the money into it, with the economy as it is, the facility could sit unused.

While many manufacturers are having trouble with the economy, the problems of the car companies present a notable problem for Fiber Conversion.

Nick Terlaak-Poot, the sales manager at the business, said before the recession, about 70 percent to 75 percent of the company's work came from the automotive industry. About 25 percent was scattered among other sectors, such as bedding and furniture.

"Now, that has completely flipped," he said.

MacFarland said Fiber Conversion is an example of what has happened in the wider economy. Though the business does not deal directly with the auto companies, their problems have trickled down to Fiber Conversion, he said.

As has been the case for years, the material still comes in the form of giant bales weighing 650 to 700 pounds. The material is cleaned using magnets and other machinery, and the bales are loaded onto production lines by forklifts. Almost nothing has to be touched by a human hand.

Death in family

While the business was recovering from the fire, David B. Kissinger died.

Kissinger was 70 when he died June 19, 2008.

As MacFarland put it, "He was the patriarch of this business."

David Kissinger joined his father in the operation of D&K Fiber in 1963. Later, under David's ownership, the company became Fiber Conversion.

While he was retired, MacFarland said, David Kissinger still kept up on how the business was doing. That was not surprising considering he helped load and unload trucks when he was 65.

However, MacFarland expressed optimism about the business's future - particularly due to the help from its employees.

MacFarland said the small, family-owned business does not have a lot of bureaucracy. That is key, because everyone on occasion has to pitch in and do a different job to make sure things run smoothly.

The employees tend to be highly skilled at specialized jobs.

MacFarland said being willing and able to pitch in at almost any job is key, though. That goes for everyone, himself included. During the winter, he will do some plow work at the business. He also helps load and unload the trucks.

Ultimately, the business is still viable, he said. It still has 160,000 square feet of space among its five buildings and has two production lines in operation.

"People can't stop buying cars forever," MacFarland said.



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