MONSON, Maine — When Louise Jonaitis learned that Moosehead Furniture was headed for the auction block, she saw it as another unfortunate sell-off of a vital Maine industry.
Jonaitis, a lifelong Maine resident born and raised in Rumford, said nostalgia, a sense of irony and a solid business plan were what spurred her to submit the winning $1.05 million bid Tuesday for the troubled company, which has a reputation for building quality cottage furniture.
“I thought it was ironic that Mainers, of all people, couldn’t make wood work for them,” Jonaitis said Wednesday during an interview with the Bangor Daily News. “I thought, someone has to save that company because it’s symbolic of what’s happening in Maine. It’s like we’re having a big, giant yard sale up here, and then what? When it’s gone it’s gone.”
Jonaitis, who has spent most of her career working with disabled people for firms such as Catholic Charities and the Independence Association in Brunswick, was reluctant to describe the details of her past because she said they have little or no connection to her current ventures.
“One day I decided I wanted to try to do something different, so I started calculating things I could invest in,” she said. “That only started about five years ago, that I decided to try something all new.”
Jonaitis, who lives in Portland, founded the Newry-based Grand State O’Maine Land Co. The company purchased a tourmaline mine in Newry along with Robert Brown of Hanover and Saunders Bros. wood products manufacturing plants in Locke Mills and Fryeburg, according to Jonaitis. The Saunders Bros. Mill in Fryeburg is co-owned with Richard Powell of Peru. Steve LeFreniere of Howland co-owns the Saunders Bros. mill in Locke Mills with Jonaitis.
Both of those mills manufacture dowels and other wood products, and Jonaitis said she hopes they can work in connection with Moosehead Furniture to continue current products and create new ones.
Among the new Moosehead products will be a line of kitchen furniture, said Jonaitis, but the real strength of her business plan is to target the European market.
“That [Moosehead Furniture] style is very popular in Europe and this would be a new market for Moosehead,” she said. “I have a European partner who say they would die to have that cottage furniture style.”
Gov. John Baldacci said Wednesday during an interview that he first met Jonaitis in March when she presented him with a rare piece of blue tourmaline mined by her company in Newry. At Jonaitis’ request, Baldacci presented the gem to President Barack Obama during his visit to Portland on April 1. Baldacci said he saw the gesture as evidence that Jonaitis cares for the state of Maine and its people — and its abundant natural resources.
“She’s definitely looking at the synergies that are possible between her different businesses and where they’ll fit more appropriately in today’s business climate,” said Baldacci. “Wood products is an important industry in this state and it’s wonderful to see her stepping up to the plate. She cares deeply for Maine and wants to see positive things happening.”
Baldacci said Moosehead Furniture will benefit from a range of financial benefits available under the state’s Pine Tree Development Zones program, which he said constitutes a worthy trade-off if Jonaitis can restore jobs to the state.
“We give them the income tax and sales tax revenue that would not have been gained otherwise,” said Baldacci. “Good-paying jobs and benefits are more important to people than revenue for the state.”
Jonaitis said her phone has been ringing constantly since the news broke this week about her purchase. She declined to discuss how the purchase will be financed, though she said the funding package is in place and that “there are no significant barriers at this point.” She has two months to close the deal.
Jonaitis said she has dreamed of making furniture for many years, to the point that she used to imagine and sketch out different names, logos and designs. Last year, she came up with the name “Messenger,” which she said might end up being a line of furniture built by Moosehead.
“There is probably some cycle that economists study and they figure all of this out right down to the penny,” she said. “For me, it is really more like a thought pattern that fills in over time. The idea might be dormant but still viable and then one day the opportunity is there.”
Jonaitis, who has developed her business plan with the assistance of the University of Maine’s Knowledge Transfer Alliance, said experts have told her that at least 155 furniture manufacturers in the United States have gone out of business in recent years, with much of the industry moving to China.
“China certainly can make what China makes, but China can’t make Moosehead Furniture or American dowels in Maine,” said Jonaitis. “I’m not really worried about China. You can’t really predict things right now in the world. Similarly, you can’t really predict things in Maine, either. You just have to go with your best thought, or don’t bother to do anything at all.”