United Furniture owner quietly emerges after laying off 2,700 overnight

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The owner of United Furniture Industries, who abruptly laid off all of its 2,700 employees over a single night last month, has been quietly assisting in shutting down the business – with some insiders claiming he is trying to “save face” after the bloodbath, The Post learned.

David Belford – a wealthy Ohio businessman who was silent for several weeks after the Nov. 21 layoffs at furniture factories in Mississippi, North Carolina and California – re-emerged earlier this month, telling a local business publication that he is ​“devastated by the turn of events” and calling the situation “agonizing.”

But Belford also insisted he wasn’t at fault, according to the Dec. 12 interview with Columbus Business First. He called himself a “passive investor” in the Okolona, ​​Mississippi-based business, according to the report, adding that “my view of the company’s finances was limited.”

“It was only very recently that I discovered how dire the situation had become, how limited the company’s options were,” he said. “Unfortunately, the reality of UFI’s circumstances was brought to the attention of the board too late.”

David Belford
David Belford re-emerged earlier this month, telling a local business publication that he is “devastated by this turn of events”.
Flying Horse Farm

However, sources say Belford has quietly taken an active role in the liquidation, rehiring a handful of staff, including former financial controller Kim Harper. A former human resources executive, Helen Benefield, has been called in to help employees retrieve belongings from closed facilities and to reassure them that they will receive statements from W2, sources said.

“He re-hired Harper and Benefield and others to save face because he was being slaughtered,” said Philip Hearn, a lawyer who is suing the UFI on behalf of the employees. “Who looks like a bigger Scrooge than this guy?”

Belford did not return calls for comment.

UFI’s creditors, including Wells Fargo, are leading the bulk of the shutdown, returning trucks and equipment to suppliers and paying for security to protect those assets, sources said. A Wells Fargo spokesman declined to comment. UFI suppliers, for their part, say they were taken aback by the sudden closure and baffled by Belford’s explanation that he was out of the loop.

Workers at United Furniture Industries
All 2,700 United Furniture employees were laid off in a single night last month.
United Furniture Industries
Inside a United Furniture Industries warehouse
Sources say Belford has quietly taken an active role in the liquidation.
United Furniture Industries

“I can’t imagine a company as big as UFI not knowing what’s going on,” said Keith Sechrest, co-owner of Seagrove Lumber LLC, which was forced to lay off its 45 employees after the vast majority of its businesses failed. away when UFI closed.

UFI delayed its payments to North Carolina-based Seagrove this year, but “there was no warning” that it would simply pull out, Sechrest said. His brother also owns a logging company that was forced to close and lay off 30 employees.

UFI owes Seagrove $1.2 million in unpaid invoices in the last 90 days, Sechrest claims, and owes half a million dollars to his brother’s company. A small blade-sharpening business that worked with the two loggers is also on the verge of closing, taking four other jobs with it, he said.

It is unclear whether UFI will file for bankruptcy. Sources said the UFI board — whose chairman is still Belford, according to the Ohio Business Journal — recently hired bad debt attorney Mark Melickian, a partner at Sugar Felsenthal Grais & Helsinger in Chicago, who did not respond to requests for comment. UFI also hired labor litigation attorney Michael Kelly, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs in San Francisco, who declined to comment.

“The owner may find it too expensive to file for bankruptcy protection and the bank would love to sell it as a turnkey operation,” said Kenneth Rosen, a bankruptcy attorney at Lowenstein Sandler, who is not involved in the case.

Vendors and vendors were recently told that business was improving and that there were no indications that the company was in the “awful” shape that Belford claims. While demand for furniture has declined with rising interest rates and inflation, UFI has traditionally performed well during recessions because its products are value-oriented, a former executive told The Post.

Lane furniture store in Verona, Miss.  Lane is a UFI unit.
Lane furniture store in Verona, Miss. Lane is a UFI unit.
Kenzie Neal

“There is no reason for this company to be in the position it is in,” wrote longtime UFI President Larry George in a Nov. 29 Facebook post. George left the company nearly two years ago and said he would have “stayed in” had he known it would close, adding that he “would have handled it in a completely different way”.

George declined to comment for this story.

“How can someone who owns a majority of the company not know the financial situation,” a former North Carolina operations manager told The Post, adding that in October, a senior executive visited the factories she managed and assured that “ things were going in the right direction.”

United Furniture Industries
UFI’s creditors, including Wells Fargo, are leading the bulk of the shutdown, returning trucks and equipment to suppliers and paying for security to protect those assets, sources said.
United Furniture Industries

Some employees have filed lawsuits alleging that the UFI violated labor laws by firing them without 60 days’ notice. UFI sent texts and emails to employees telling them not to work on November 21 because their jobs and health insurance were eliminated, effective immediately.

A new notice from WARN was sent out to employees two weeks ago, in which UFI disclosed for the first time that it was unable to “obtain sufficient funding to maintain operations” and that the company was “trying very hard” to obtain that funding.

“It’s sad that he’s fed up with it and doesn’t blame himself for any of it,” a former UFI employee said of Belford on a Facebook page for laid-off workers who are exchanging information about health insurance, assistance programs and other services.

“This is bullshit,” wrote another former employee, responding to Belford’s claims that he was blindsided by a business crisis. “David has fallen over the last 6 months. Then he could give us more warnings. Rather than [the] The CEO kept telling us that business was improving.”

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