APPLE GROVE, W.Va. — When the Apple Grove polymer plant shuttered in October 2017, its laid-off employees volunteered their time to save it.
About 16 employees stayed behind to cool down reactors, safely dispose of chemicals and get the facility ready for winter. They did it all without the promise of a paycheck and without knowing if the plant would ever reopen. They said doing so was worth more than saving their jobs - it was about saving their community.
Their efforts were celebrated Saturday as the plant, now called APG Polytech, celebrated its first year under its new owners, Far Eastern New Century (Far Eastern Group). Employees and their families gathered at the Mason County, West Virginia, plant for a picnic and a fair, which included bounce houses, a mechanical bull and a Ferris wheel.
Seeing all the families together helped put into perspective how much the plant means to the Apple Grove community, said Richard Maack, manufacturing site manager. He helped lead laid-off employees during the plant's downturn, maintaining it and making it attractive to potential buyers.
"I told them, 'If you do nothing else in your pathetic life, know that you've done something very special here,'" Maack said. "'You have done something very special, not only for yourself and your families, but the families and the communities around us.'"
The plant was previously owned by M&G Chemicals, which was working to expand to a manufacturing plant in Corpus Christi, Texas. However, plans for the new plant became billions of dollars over budget, requiring the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plant makes "virgin plastic," which is sold and later shaped into products like soda bottles and food packaging.
The plant was closed Oct. 24, 2017, weeks after M&G declared bankruptcy. Employees were paid until midnight that day and were instructed to lock up the facility and leave, Maack said. About 130 employees instantly became unemployed. Through a restructuring firm, about 16 employees negotiated to stay behind and maintain the facility in hopes a new buyer would be found.
"We had to make bankruptcy court aware this wasn't like shutting down a Kmart," he said.
When a team from the Taiwan-based Far Eastern Group visited the facility, they were impressed by the employees' dedication, said Hermia Tsai, legal counsel for the office of the company's president.
"At that time we had made up our minds - we are going to get this place" Tsai said.
Far Eastern Group became the successful bidder for the facility and closed the deal in March 2018. Since then they have installed new equipment, introduced some new technology and worked to improve the production process, she said. Thanks to the employees' dedication, the plant only needed about four months to become fully operational again.
When the Far Eastern Group began rehiring laid-off workers, approximately 97% returned to their old jobs. Many of those employees had already started new jobs, said Jeff Fowler, human relations director. Employees have returned with a new sense of purpose, realizing how important their work is to the community around them.
"Every day I try to just take a minute and just look around and realize what we've done, and it's just a good feeling," he said.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber opened the plant in 1952, before Shell Chemical Co. bought it in 1992. It was then purchased by M&G Chemicals in 2000 before the company filed for bankruptcy. M&G Chemicals still operates manufacturing plants in several countries, according to its website.
Far Eastern Group is headquartered in Taipei, Taiwan, and has production plants in China, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Forbes magazine ranks the company at No. 1,560 in the list of the 2,000 largest companies in the world.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.