Workers arrived early Monday morning to start their day at Christensen Shipyards, the Vancouver-based builder of custom yachts, only to find the gates locked.
The manufacturing plant was closed, although it appeared that workers were remaining at a nearby site where a Christensen yacht, “Missing Link,” sat in the Columbia River nearby.
It’s not the first time the builder of custom yachts has closed down production as it has struggled financially in recent months. Late last year, the company temporarily closed down for a week. Subsequently, operations started up again, but new information added to concerns about Christensen’s financial health.
In the past couple months, several businesses have made initial filings under the Uniform Commercial Code naming Christensen as a debtor and spelling out collateral, public documents show. Meanwhile, the company has informed employees that certain voluntary benefits, including vision insurance, will be terminated or scaled back, according to a company letter dated Feb. 3 that was obtained by The Columbian.
Joe Foggia, president of Christensen, could not be reached for comment Monday by phone or email. Company officials who could be seen in Christensen offices Monday morning relayed through a security guard that they would offer no comment.
Monday morning, a Columbian reporter witnessed security personnel allowing employees to arrive and leave after gathering their tools. In a phone interview, one employee who would speak only on condition of anonymity said the company had sent emails to employees telling them not to show up for work.
“My biggest thing right now is to start thinking about my family,” the employee said. That employee and another employee at the site who also requested anonymity told The Columbian they feared the closure could become permanent.
Chris Allinger, an exterior outfitter for Christensen, said Monday he showed up early for work, at 5:25 a.m., after traveling from North Bonneville. A maintenance supervisor, standing behind the gate, told Allinger and several others that production was closed down until further notice, Allinger said.
He said he’d planned to give one week’s notice to the company Monday since he recently landed another job. Allinger, who worked for the company for some four years, said Christensen’s workforce has steadily declined through furloughs and layoffs.
Some employees who were furloughed never heard from the company again, he said. “They’re just in limbo,” Allinger said. “They just haven’t been called back.”
Over time, Allinger estimated, the company’s total work force shrank from a range of 400 to 450 down to a range of 100 to 110. Other employees, who wished to remain anonymous, have cited similar numbers in recent interviews with The Columbian. Those estimates contradict what Foggia told The Columbian in January. At the time, Foggia said an estimated 50 workers were on temporary layoff and that the company was trying to bring them back as work allowed. He also said the company had between 300 and 350 employees.
John Cochran, a Christensen project manager for the yacht “Missing Link” said he and others knew that the company was having financial problems. “I don’t know what transpired in the last few days,” said Cochran before he drove away from the Christensen site. “I wish I knew.”
Cochran said he would continue to work with the Missing Link’s representative on delivery of the vessel. “We’ll keep plugging away,” he said.
The small parking lot near the landing where “Missing Link” was moored was filled with vehicles. Workers there said they could give no comment. One said the parking area was closed except to Christensen employees.
Financial notices filed
On Dec. 3, as rumors circulated of a temporary closure and layoffs, the company issued a statement saying, in part, that it was “currently working on a multipart ownership restructure.”
The company, which once sold a yacht to Tiger Woods, has previously overcome financial headwinds.
A September 2011 story by The Columbian illustrated Christensen’s recovery after the global economic crash forced it to jettison workers and to halt construction on a second shipyard in Tennessee.
However, in the past couple months signs emerged of Christensen’s stress.
Those signs included notices filed by creditors in December and January under the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs commercial transactions including sales of goods and negotiable instruments. The filings don’t necessarily mean something bad will happen. But parties issue them to put others on notice that they’re claiming an interest in another party’s property, usually as collateral for a debt. The notices typically involve large accounts.
On Dec. 24, for example, Stellar Industrial Supply made six initial commercial code filings that name Christensen as a debtor, according to the Washington Department of Licensing. On Jan. 23, Umpqua Bank made two such filings. More recently, Ocean Alexander, Alexander Marine Co. made an initial commercial code filing on Jan. 27. That filing cites as collateral two yachts, “designated as OA-1002 and OA-1003,” public documents show. “This financing statement is filed to give notice of secured party’s ownership of the collateral and also represents as conditional security interest in the Collateral that was granted by the Debtor in the event title failed or is challenged for any reason,” according to the filing by Jeffrey Wishko, an attorney with the Anderson Hunter law firm in Everett.
On Jan. 28, a day after the Ocean Alexander filing, Emerson Hardwood Company, based in Portland, made five initial commercial code filings naming Christensen as a debtor and describing collateral.
As these businesses publicly assert their financial interests, employees of Christensen wonder about their status with the company. Matt James, 38, is one of them. He worked for Christensen for four years, including as a crane operator and an exterior outfitter.
After the Thanksgiving holiday, James said Monday, he and other employees received jarring phone calls from Christensen: They were furloughed for a week. Days later, James said, he got another phone call telling him he was temporarily laid off.
James said he’s now collecting unemployment insurance. And he said he recently confirmed through Kaiser Permanente that he’s still receiving health insurance from Christensen.
But ever since he was first furloughed by the company and later told of his temporary layoff, James said, he hasn’t heard from Christensen about where he stands with the company. “The lack of communication has been horrible,” he said.
With some exceptions, the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires employers to provide workers with a notice 60 days in advance of plant closings or mass layoffs.
Kristin Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Employment Security Department, said the person who could verify whether or not Christensen issued such a notice wasn’t available Monday.
However, if permanent layoffs occurred, Alexander said, the WorkSource Vancouver office could help connect workers to unemployment benefits and provide services aimed at re-employing them.
In January, Foggia, Christensen’s president, responded by email to questions asked by The Columbian about the company’s situation. Said Foggia, in part: “Like all businesses, especially our type of business” Christensen “has regular concerns with cash flow. With over 300 employees, this is common in large construction projects. Projects start and stop regularly due to economics, world events, disagreements, changes in life. For example, if we have a customer who made their money in oil, more than 50 percent of their wealth would be lost in the last several months. Their yacht being built would be the first thing to stop. We have to balance this.”
It’s unclear where Henry Luken — the Tennessee investor in Christensen who made his original fortune in the telecom industry — stands in all of this. Responding in January to a question about Luken’s role in the restructuring of Christensen’s ownership, Foggia described Luken as a “Partner/Advisor/Board Member.”
Christensen, at 4400 S.E. Columbia Way, incorporated in July 1985 to build luxury yachts and, by 1986, had its own facility and mold to build hulls, according to its website. Company founder Dave Christensen retired in 2009.
Business Editor Gordon Oliver contributed to this story.