MILBRIDGE, Maine — Heads up! There are only 200 shopping days left until Christmas.
While that insight may not having you rushing to the mall, it’s a big-deal reality for three Washington County businesses that rely on the buying frenzy that surrounds Christmas each year to either make or break their bottom lines.
Kelco Industries is all about Christmas. The Milbridge-based company caters both to Christmas tree growers and to wreath makers, manufacturing everything from the machines that wrap field-cut Christmas trees in netting to the metal rings, cloth bows and other decorations used in making wreaths. On its 455-acre tree farm in Aroostook County, the company also harvests balsam used in making mail-order wreaths and selling wholesale Christmas trees.
With 50 year-round employees, Kelco is one of Washington County’s largest employers. As the Christmas season nears, the company will ramp up and add many more seasonal employees. In the meantime, workers like Carole Grant of Harrington stay busy manufacturing the components she and other workers will need when, closer to the holidays, they begin making wreaths and garlands.
“I’m welding wreath frames now, but I’ll be making wreaths later,” she said last week, in her sixth year on the job. “We all do a lot of different jobs here.”
Doug Kell, a retired fisherman from away who founded the company, said Kelco produces and sells about 500 different items, including tools used in planting and harvesting Christmas trees. In the spring, he said, the firm’s attention is focused on the tree farm. This year, with a wet spring following late-winter snowfalls, the planting of 50,000 balsam trees has been delayed.
“I’m also working hard at the plant, trying to make for more efficiency,” he said. “During the recession we took a bit of a hit in sales, most of which happen in the fall, and we’re trying to figure out how to come back from that.”
Harrington-based Worcester Wreath is more or less dormant this time of year, said owner Morrill Worcester. He has only three people on his spring payroll, making bows and other components for the tens of thousands of wreaths that will be produced this fall both for online sales and for the Wreaths Across America program that each year markets wreaths used to decorate the graves of veterans nationwide. By October, Worcester’s three-person payroll will grow to nearly 400.
“We’ll ramp up to probably 400 from the last week of October until the second week of December,” he said.
Machias-based Whitney Wreath is a division of a corporation that oversees a number of seasonal endeavors, including the production of hundreds of thousands of balsam wreaths and other balsam-based holiday products sold by L.L. Bean.
“At the moment, we employ about 20 people who are concentrating on blueberry farming,” David Whitney, the company’s CEO, said Monday. “Christmas wreath planning and our Honda outboard marine business are also in high gear.”
Whitney said the company just wrapped up its overseas buying of wreath decorations and is now immersed in planning for the upcoming 2013 wreath manufacturing surge. The company is already looking ahead to the 2014 Christmas season, Whitney said.
“We are now manufacturing specialty bows, which will take place through the wreath season,” he said. “Creatively, we are currently working on designs for the 2014 Christmas season, which is 18 months away. Our operations division is continually honing its safety and efficiency programs.
“Administratively, we are working on some acquisitions related to all different aspects of our business. We are also continuing to work on plans for our 75,000-square-foot headquarters to increase its utilization and ultimately employment numbers in alternative manufacturing and fulfillment services in the future,” Whitney said.
Whitney said the company’s current 20-person payroll will increase to more than 100 in August, coinciding with the late summer blueberry harvest. By late October, he said, employment numbers will swell to between 500 to 600 at five wreath production facilities — four in Down East Maine and one in Canada — as Whitney Wreath ramps up to create and ship hundreds of thousands of wreaths across the nation via UPS.