EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine – Al Cimon didn’t offer coupons or free state inspections of vehicles when he launched Al’s Auto LLC of Medway in 2000.
Now he does it regularly.
“In the beginning, there was no need for it,” Cimon said Wednesday. “The mills were up and running. Everybody was employed. Everybody could afford to pay for the work they needed done.”
Cimon said he has offered more specials, coupons or individual aid for his customers since the Millinocket paper mill closed in 2008, and he expects to do more of it with Great Northern Paper Co.’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing on Tuesday. The GNP mill in East Millinocket has been shut down since January and most of its workers were laid off a month later.
About a dozen Medway and East Millinocket businesspeople interviewed Wednesday say that they have done free work, cut rates or delayed collection of bills to help their struggling customers stay afloat. It’s an always stressful part of their work that they do out of compassion, pragmatism and good business, and they don’t like to talk about it.
Put simply, they don’t want to be preyed upon by customers who will take advantage of their charity.
“I do it all the time,” said one automotive industry businessman who asked that his name not be used. “I’ve done total repair jobs on people’s vehicles for free. But I can’t advertise that. I still have to make a living and I won’t be able to if everybody expects me to work for them for free.”
Peter Ellis, owner of Ellis’ Family Market of East Millinocket, said that his family’s Patten grocery discontinued its credit program in the 1980s because “it got out of control.”
“It’s a lot of work to keep that going and hard to open it for one and not do it for everybody,” Ellis said. “It never ends. We couldn’t afford to carry the amount of charges we were carrying. You would love to help everybody but you can’t.”
Cimon estimates that in the life of his business, he’s lost about $18,000 working for customers in economic distress. Recognizing that the customers were often helpless to fix their situation didn’t help him much, he said.
“People need a break, but it’s hard to do that kind of thing when you don’t get paid,” Cimon said. “You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”
Dan Byron, president and CEO of Eastmill Federal Credit Union of East Millinocket, said his business reviews financial histories with customers who seek help and tries to craft individual solutions to problems.
“Our credit union is pretty well known for helping out people. We’ll offer them lower payments for two to six months to get them through the tough economic times. We have been able to help a few of them get over the economic hurdle,” Byron said.
Loan modifications or extensions and financial counseling that aims to show people how to save more money are among the credit union’s offerings, he said.
“These are all short-term fixes. If it comes down to their unemployment running out, it is difficult for us to do more — for anybody to do more,” Byron said.
Joseph Lanzana, a licensed clinical professional counselor in East Millinocket and former East Millinocket paper millworker, said that most Katahdin region residents, particularly those in the paper industry, have learned how to get through mill shutdowns and bankruptcies.
“I think people now are so used to it that it does not hit them as hard,” said Lanzana, who offers sliding scale payment plans to his clients. “It’s almost like they’re becoming desensitized.”
Many former millworkers now drive an hour or more to work in other towns. They have paid off their mortgages and are unwilling to leave their homes, so many of them rent apartments closer to their work sites during the week and return on weekends, Lanzana said. He worried that the GNP bankruptcy will accelerate that trend, hurting businesses by effectively reducing the amount of money people spend locally.
Yet those who still use local services are good customers who don’t forget the charity they receive. Byron said that only 20, or a fifth of 1 percent, of the 2,200 loans the credit union had on its books as of Wednesday were delinquent. There were only 30 a year ago, he said.
“That tells you,” Byron said, “that people here pay their bills. They don’t walk away from their obligations. Most people here have a strong moral attachment to their families and their finances.”
Customers whom Cimon has helped have given him Christmas cards with lottery tickets or $50 bills inside, he said. One gave him a fifth of whiskey. Others have given him trays of homemade cookies or chocolates — “all those things you’re not supposed to eat,” he said.
And Cimon gets from those customers the best gift a business can get — positive word-of-mouth.
“This area has a lot of decent, kind people,” he said. “Never forget that. And the bottom line is, good, loyal customers are always rewarded.”