Briggs Nursery in financial trouble

ELMA — Briggs Nursery, a huge commercial nursery well known as a supplier of rhododendron plants around the country, notified their employees and the State of Washington on Friday that they planned to lay off 75 employees in the coming days.

And, on Friday, Grays Harbor Superior Court Judge Gordon Godfrey officially placed the company with a court-appointed receiver, TurningPoint, LLC, to determine the future of the company, which is located on South Bank Road about five miles southeast of Elma. The court will review the situation during a planned hearing next week.

On Monday, company employees were on pins and needles trying to figure out what happens next. Two employees, who asked not to be identified, said they were given layoff notices on Friday but were told they could come into work this week if they wanted. Just a skeleton crew remained on hand Monday, with the gates open to the grounds, although the sales and human resources offices were both closed late in the afternoon.

There were a few scattered employees in the building, but no one answered the door on Monday and one woman who picked up the phone referred comments to a company manager, who didn’t return messages seeking comment.

“This is my whole life, the best job I’ve ever had and I don’t know if I’m going to get a paycheck on Friday,” one employee told The Daily World.”I decided it was worth the risk to still come to work.”

Briggs began at a 150-acre site between Olympia and Tumwater, but due to rapid urbanization of the area, the owners decided to relocate the operation to a 400-acre site on Grays Harbor. The company has been on the Harbor for about 15 years, and has established a reputation as the go-to wholesaler on the west coast.

Court documents reviewed this morning show that the company’s financial institution, the Bank of the West out of San Ramon, Calif., has instituted a lawsuit against Briggs Nursery claiming “in excess of $5 million” is owed to the bank. The loans were first taken out in February of 2008, the lawsuit states, and the company has not been able to keep up with the payments and is officially in default, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit is claiming “breach of contract.”

Sheryl Hutchinson from the state Employment Security Department confirmed the nursery had submitted an official notice of closure and layoffs on Friday effective the same day.

Federal law requires 60 day notice for employees, but Hutchinson noted, “The federal law has no teeth.”

Elma Mayor Dave Osgood said he officially received notice of the receivership earlier this week.

“One step forward and another back for this whole community,” Osgood said. “We just had to deal with the closure of the mill at Satsop and now this? It’s sad for the area.”

NewWood composite manufacturing company at the Satsop Business Park is also in court-directed receivership. The company struggled after first hiring upwards of 150 people back in 2010.

Don Tapio, the Agriculture and Community Horticulture Agent for the Washington State University Extension Office in Elma, said he was unaware of what was going on and surprised at the situation because Briggs has become an institution on the Harbor and a frequent part of tours for farms and the economic development community.

Briggs Nursery celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012. The company has said it is the largest producer of rhododendrons in America, and the only USDA certified rhododendron farm, producing about 3 million rhododendrons per year, whose various species can be grown in different climates around the world.

In recent years, the Briggs team has begun cultivating and selling wine grapes and created a buzz locally by selling pink blueberries.