In the early 2000s, Leisters Furniture Inc. took a major hit from low-cost imports. But instead of closing its doors, the Hanover, Pa. manufacturer of occasional tables for the residential market opted to seek federal assistance through the MidAtlantic Trade Adjustment Assistance Center.

"The MATAAC had funds available for companies that had been impacted by imports," says Tom Leister, president. "We thought that we could get some consulting help, so we looked into it. We made the application and we were granted some money they provided 50 percent and we had to match it. So we were able to get some help . . . by getting people in to try to help us stay alive, really."

Today the company, which employs 35, still is challenged by an import-dominated market. "Our business is down 70 percent in seven years," says Leister. "We've just continued to downsize. We're continuing to struggle every day, trying to find new markets or some new ways to grow the business, but the imports have been very detrimental to our business, like a lot of others in furniture."

However, the MATAAC grant helped Leisters Furniture improve its operations and expand its product offerings and the markets it serves.

Leveling the playing field

Sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, the MATAAC provides guidance and matching federal grants to help qualified manufacturers strengthen their position in the global marketplace.

MATAAC serves as an advocate for manufacturers in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. It is part of a network of 11 trade adjustment assistant centers that serve manufacturers throughout the United States (see sidebar).

"In order to level the playing field against low-cost overseas competition, many U.S. manufacturers must invest in new technology, efficiency upgrades, training and education, cost-control programs and new product development," says William Bujalos, MATAAC director. "Companies can apply for our grants at no charge, and those that qualify can use the funds to pay for consulting services to help implement projects intended to improve competitiveness."

Companies can qualify for a maximum of $150,000 (50 percent from the federal government, 50 percent from the company). The amount of technical assistance is determined by the number of employees and the sales revenue. Companies may be eligible for the assistance if they have experienced, or expect to experience, a decline in employment, sales or production, and have felt the effects of increased foreign competition.

Expert assistance

Leisters Furniture used the grant money to hire expert consultants in a range of areas, including marketing, strategic planning, equipment and efficiency assessments, lean manufacturing and other training, and computer work. Art Raymond, FDM columnist and owner of A.G. Raymond & Co., a manufacturing consulting firm, did the bulk of the consulting work, Leister says.

"It was very helpful in terms of us being able to do some things and get some help that we normally wouldn't have been able to afford," Leister says. "[MATAAC] provided the funds that allowed us to do different projects. Of course, we had to get those projects approved, but we were able to go and use the people we wanted."

To further improve its business, Leisters Furniture expanded beyond occasional tables and the residential market. "In the last couple years, we've been trying to get into the contract market, mostly in health care, making some casegoods and some furniture that's geared more toward assisted living, nursing homes, that type of facilities," Leister says.

Success in the new markets, however, has come gradually. "It's not like in residential, where Mrs. Jones buys a piece of furniture today and wants it tomorrow," he says. "We're putting out quotes that might be, in some cases, a year down the road.

"It's a little bit of a slow go," Leister says. "We've got to get that pipeline filled up, but we have had some successes. It's just not coming as fast as I would like."

Grant gratitude

Leisters Furniture remains grateful for the help provided by the MATAAC. "We went from being a growing, profitable business to where we weren't growing, and we watched ourselves decline and our profits and employment decline," Leister adds. "You're in a situation where you don't know what to do. We were very happy to get some outside help."

For more information, visit MATAAC's new Web site, www.mataac.org. For detailed information about other trade adjustment assistant centers throughout the United States, select "Resources" in the left column of the home page and scan the "National in Scope" column on the right side of the selected page.

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