By Sam Levin
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Many saw the silver-haired, square-jawed corporate executive as just another millionaire big shot -- the kind of guy who teed off at Augusta National, threw fundraisers for his pal, George Bush Sr., and lived a life light years removed from theirs.
In the eyes of his Paris, Tennessee, employees, Charles F. Knight was a remote boss, a name at the top of their company's organizational chart, a suit who threw people out of work.
On August 28, 1998, they saw a different Chuck Knight.
This Knight was shining.
He'd wrangled a deal to keep the factory open and, for the 300 workers who'd sweated for months about making house notes and car payments, worry turned into celebration.
Since the 1960s, the Paris factory produced Craftsman power and bench tools for Sears, Roebuck and Company, one of the nation's top retailers. But in 1997, Sears wanted better terms from Emerson; otherwise, it'd turn to cheaper foreign manufacturers and workers to produce its brand-name tools. The abrupt announcement appeared to signal the end of the line for the plant -- the second time in the '90s that closing seemed imminent.
But Knight and other top execs at the St. Louis-based industrial giant found a new partner in Home Depot, the Atlanta-based home-improvement powerhouse. Emerson proposed launching a new line of bench-top and stationary power tools exclusive to Home Depot. The new tools, similar to those made for Sears, would be sold under the Ridgid brand name. Home Depot jumped at the opportunity -- and soon, Ridgid tools were rolling off the same assembly lines where Craftsman products used to appear.
"One day we were running Sears Craftsman, the next day it was Ridgid," says Janice Chadwick, a longtime Emerson worker. "It was smooth, a pretty smooth turnover."
The reason things went smoothly, Sears alleges in a recent lawsuit, is that Emerson stole equipment, drawings and other intellectual property in order to do the Home Depot deal. Emerson denies the charge.
But back in August 1998, with the marriage off to a good start, Emerson and Home Depot organized a company picnic that was part celebration and part public-relations event.
Knight and other Emerson top brass from St. Louis showed up. So did Home Depot Chairman Bernard Marcus, who'd cancelled a scheduled appearance in Santiago, Chile, where the chain was opening its first international store. Home Depot employees from nearby Clarksville, Jackson and Nashville made the trip to Paris. Even Heather Heath, Miss Tennessee 1998, showed up to greet workers as a band from Nashville's Opryland performed.
"This is a great day for Emerson and for Paris," Knight told the crowd.
Amid chants and cheers, Knight praised his workers and their "commitment to high-quality production."
But it wasn't just Emerson's employees who were committed to their jobs. The town of 10,000 was also determined to keep the plant open. That's why, in 1992, after Emerson said it might have to close the plant and move the work to North Carolina, the community threw cash into the outstretched hands of what was, at the time, one of the nation's top-performing Fortune 500 companies.
And now the workers, politicians, executives and reporters gathered like the faithful at a tent revival.
Of course, the corporate tent was fancier than the ones Jesus uses.
"We never seen anything like it," Chadwick says. "Windows and air conditioning -- that was a big thing for us hillbillies."
Inside, the sweet smell of barbecue mingled with the perfume of small-town politics and power. The mayor of Paris and other small-town city officials rubbed shoulders with the corporate royalty, people who could buy up most of the county with their personal bank accounts.
The picnic, for the workers and their families, started at 11:30 a.m., cutting short the regular work shift by two hours.
Chadwick had been at the plant since before 5 a.m., the time when her shift officially started.
That morning, Chadwick, who was 54 at the time, was working on the Ridgid bench-saw motor line. The motors, made in Mexico and shipped to Tennessee, were stacked five layers high on a lift. Her job was to take the twenty-pound motor from the pile, put it on the conveyor, wire an on/off switch and put the assembled unit in a cardboard box. Before the picnic, Knight walked through the factory, but he didn't stop to chat with Chadwick, whose T-shirt and jeans were already moist with sweat.
The 640,000-square-foot factory doesn't have air conditioning, and in August, temperatures creep close to 100 degrees.
But a job in a hot factory was better than no job at all, so when her shift was over, Chadwick swept up and walked to the cool tent to celebrate the fact that she would continue working in the hot factory, hopefully until she turned 65.
"We thought Ridgid was going to be a big thing," she says.
She and the rest of Paris thought wrong.
Emerson's deal with Home Depot not only didn't save the Paris plant, it may end up costing the St. Louis company millions of dollars.
In a federal lawsuit filed in August, Sears alleges that Emerson pulled a fast one in order to do the deal with Home Depot. The lawsuit, which has received scant coverage in St. Louis, describes how Emerson allegedly conspired to defraud Sears, helping Home Depot quickly launch a line of "substantially similar" products to compete with the more-established Craftsman brand.
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