The low, flat, and swampy landscape of the Mississippi Delta—dotted with ramshackle shotgun houses, stagnant and shrinking small towns, and entrenched rural poverty—makes a strange home for a luxury appliance manufacturer. But right there along the banks of the Yazoo River on Front Street in Greenwood, Mississippi, is the headquarters of Viking Range in a sumptuous, meticulously renovated opera house and adjacent former cotton market.
Founded in 1984 by Fred Carl, Jr., Viking first started shipping ranges off the production line in 1987. By the mid-1990s, a couple of years after its first factory in Greenwood opened on a shoestring budget, the company had created and then conquered the market for super high-end home appliances. By the turn of the century, Viking’s high-priced stoves (the cheapest of which top $4,000) had become iconic luxury goods.
Back in 1990, Greenwood, a town of about 16,000 residents, showed signs of the economic decline that has gripped the Delta since the days when cotton was king, and still does today. But for 25 years after Viking’s founding, Carl pumped millions of dollars into rehabbing crumbling and vacant buildings, drew shops and small businesses downtown, and poured cash into numerous local charities. His booming company began buying up surrounding properties, including whole swaths of real estate for miles around the river. The renovated buildings hosted a growing number of small storefront businesses, many with direct ties to Carl: an independent bookshop, a bakery, boutiques and gift shops, antique stores, and the Alluvian, a 45-room luxury boutique hotel that quickly became the centerpiece of the town.
For Carl and other senior Viking executives, these projects were at least partially a promotional cost for the company—a series of long-term investments in building Viking’s reputation and creating an entire “Viking Lifestyle” in the founder’s hometown centered around the products’ exclusive image. For several years, the gambit appeared to be paying off; the upstart manufacturer improbably turned Greenwood into a destination for culinary-minded tourists and rabid Viking devotees.
While investing heavily in non-core business lines may have been a wise investment in the company’s long-term brand prestige, it also pushed down profit margins and drove up costs in the company’s ancillary activities. The housing crunch in 2008 sent the company reeling as sales, highly dependent on home construction and renovations and the purchase of “durables”, plunged dramatically.
Viking pared costs, including through several rounds of layoffs. But the economic recovery was sluggish for new home construction, and even four years after the crash sales for luxury appliances appeared to be in permanent retreat. A slight uptick in Viking’s sales during this period made it an appealing target for acquisition by public companies and private equity groups looking to cash in on the company’s brand. Potential buyers eyed the company, making plans to cut accumulated corporate fat: unnecessary expenses, disparate business lines, high-paid employees with small portfolios and costly perks, generous employee benefits, and a pair of corporate jets.
Carl and his partners turned down the offers at first, but after a half-dozen years of strain and pressure, the axe finally fell in early 2013, when Viking’s owners sold the company for $380 million to the publicly traded Middleby Corporation. In several rounds of layoffs, Middleby dramatically slashed Viking’s payroll while paring back marketing costs and discontinuing several lines of products in a constant bid to push up margins. The small Mississippi town whose civic identity had become deeply entwined with Viking’s brand and operations was left anxious about the company’s future, and its own.
Whether you look at this story as a tale of American success or a tragedy depends on where you stand. Before 2008, it was a straightforward story of the American dream, with Carl as the hero, to be played by Tom Hanks in the Hollywood version. After the crash, the tale tends toward tragedy—a small-town success laid low by fortune, hubris, or the villain who swept into town. This story has them all.
One way or another, the legend of Fred Carl and Viking fits into the grand tradition of Southern storytelling. At least around Greenwood, the origins of the first Viking ranges have already become mythic. Everyone here knows that back in 1980, Carl, a fourth-generation contractor, set about building his own home but couldn’t find a heavy-duty range like the old 1948 Chambers 90-C Special Deluxe model that had served his mother- and grandmother-in-law. Nothing like it existed on the market.
Margaret Carl eventually settled for a Jenn-Air, but Fred spent the next several years trying to fill what he saw as a wide gap in the market. Commercial ranges had the right look but were impractical and unsafe for a home kitchen. In restaurant kitchens, firewalls, extra insulation, vents, and sprinkler systems are generally required around industrial ranges; installed in a residential kitchen, a commercial gas range can void a homeowner’s insurance protection. But the available residential units from companies like Kitchen Aid and General Electric provided neither the power of a commercial unit nor the sturdy looks and delicious styling.
Carl sketched out appliances and tried to interest established manufacturers in producing one of his stoves, which combined the power and stainless-steel design of commercial units with the features and built-in insulation of a traditional residential stove. When every appliance manufacturer he spoke to turned him down, Carl, who was still working full-time as a contractor, decided to strike out on his own. The very first Viking range was produced under contract with a manufacturer in Los Angeles. Making the rounds in Greenwood, Carl tried to recruit friends, local businessmen, and farmers to invest in his fledgling company, which he had named Viking after the Norsemen’s famed toughness and durability—and because the name had fared well in crude telephone polls of potential customers. After a very slow start, sales gradually picked up until, in 1990, Carl decided to open a factory of his own in his hometown.
The stainless-steel ranges proved a remarkable hit. By the early 1990s the company was struggling to keep up with exploding demand. “It just took off like a rocket”, said Dale Persons, who joined Viking as national sales manager in 1989 after spending several years selling the products for a distributor in Chicago.
In 1992, Carl attracted several million dollars in investment from Stephens Inc., the low-profile Little Rock, Arkansas, investment bank, which bought out most of Carl’s initial investors. Flush with cash, Viking expanded its factories and ramped up its nationwide advertising. By 1994, when Viking introduced a thirty-inch gas range (matching the width of most other residential appliances), consumer demand overwhelmed the company. Persons found himself taking calls from upset homebuilders demanding to know when their ranges would arrive. Orders were backed up as many as 22 weeks. “We just totally lost control of the orders. They were coming in so fast we couldn’t field them. We’d walk in to the fax machine on Saturday mornings and there’d be a stack of orders. We’d just look at each other and shake our heads.” Bill Crump, who joined Viking in 1992, said the company’s rapid growth was “like trying to wash your windshield while driving 100 miles per hour down the highway.”
The boom couldn’t have come at a better time for Greenwood. The town’s first fortunes were built on cotton, grown on the sprawling plantations that sprung up as the swamps and bottomlands of the Delta were drained and then tilled by slaves. Cotton’s bloom, however, faded over the 20th century. Mechanization and the brutal realities of sharecropping pushed growing numbers of farm laborers off the land and out of work, depopulating the countryside from which Greenwood merchants had once drawn their customers. Then globalization enabled foreign manufacturers to undersell even the most efficient U.S. producers, while the increasing popularity of synthetic fabrics and a glut of cotton grown abroad drove prices down. Slumping returns on cotton and rising grain prices pushed many local farmers into other crops like corn and soybeans, leaving local cotton gins idle and undermining the vibrant cotton market that had once made Greenwood so wealthy. Although agriculture is still the central hub around which the spokes of the local economy revolve, the decline of the once-bustling plantation communities put a big dent in the fortunes of the self-proclaimed “Cotton Capital of the World.”
Industry kept the town afloat, but by the early 1990s Greenwood’s economy was sinking back into the swamp. A slew of factories that had been key employers shut down in rapid succession. Viking’s arrival seemed like just the thing to save Greenwood from the stagnation and decline gripping other Delta towns. Harry Smith, a former department store manager who served as Greenwood’s Mayor from 1993 to 2007, said the upstart manufacturer “gave the community hope at a time when things looked pretty bad. When Detroit loses 2,000 jobs, it means nothing. When Greenwood lost 2,000 jobs, it was a catastrophe. That was a lot of jobs to replace and Viking probably picked up about half of them.”
Carl and several other former Viking executives told me that they saw Greenwood’s drab and derelict downtown as a challenge for a company seeking to burnish its status as a luxury design and lifestyle business. As Viking expanded, so did Carl’s ambitions. Instead of moving away from his hometown, Carl and his company set about to transform Greenwood and bring a touch of class to the Delta. The company converted empty business space into company offices and an expansive training center where senior executives began schooling salespeople from across the country and around the world on how to sell stoves with price tags reaching into five figures. Meanwhile, because a handful of declining roadside motels on the side of Highway 82 were the only accommodations for high-end contractors, designers, and distributors making the trek to Greenwood, Viking bought up the historic but decrepit Hotel Irving and several surrounding properties (including Smith’s old department store). They poured millions of dollars into turning the buildings into high-end condominiums and the luxury 45-room Alluvian Hotel.
The steady stream of business visitors to Viking ensured that the hotel, consistently rated as the finest in the state, would turn a profit. “The whole idea was we were bringing in people from all over the world for training”, said Crump:
You can’t bring people in and teach them how to sell a $7,000 range when you’re putting them up in a $29.99 per night motel. Building the hotel was directly tied to understanding the customer who was building a multimillion-dollar home.
The hotel rehab also touched off a flurry of activity downtown. Newly renovated storefronts lured a number of businesses along Howard Street. Across the street from the hotel, Viking opened a cooking school where visitors could spend an evening learning from company chefs on an array of Viking appliances. In the shop next door, Viking lured in a master baker to sell fresh bread and bagels, while upstairs a day spa catered to the hotel’s clientele. Just down the street, Carl brought in an energetic young bookseller and writer from Oxford, Mississippi, Jamie Kornegay, to run an independent bookstore in a space custom-renovated by the company.
“We wanted to make Viking a destination, and boy did it work”, Carl reminisced. “We had tons of press about the Greenwood experience, about the Alluvian experience, about everything that Viking does. It just substantiated the quality of our brand.” In a bid to export what the company termed the “Viking Lifestyle” beyond Greenwood, the company launched a multimillion-dollar effort to open Viking stores and cooking schools in cities across the country as part of its Culinary Arts division.
Greenwood’s overhauled downtown also allowed company executives to present a more appealing image than the poverty-ridden Delta to visitors from outside the South. Former executives contend that negative stereotypes and widely held conceptions of rural Mississippi as backward and destitute hurt the brand’s image, especially with dealers and distributors. By sprucing up the several blocks between the top-flight hotel and Viking’s expansive headquarters and training facilities, the company put a surprisingly pleasant face on a town that continued to struggle with shoddy housing and weed-covered vacant lots.
“I used to tell people early on that it’s not going to be easy to get a dealer to come here at all; they’re going to just turn me down. They’re probably thinking, ‘I know your plant probably has a dirt floor, your corporate office is probably in a single-wide mobile home’,” Carl said,
I did have to overcome all of that, which is what the Alluvian and all of our great-looking facilities was all about. That’s definitely a factor. People came here kicking and screaming at first, almost literally, and they’d get here and be absolutely blown away because of the stark contrast with what they were expecting and the shock that they experience when they come to one of the most impoverished places in the country and see this very professional, high-performing, leading-edge, cutting-edge company cranking out one of the highest quality products in America. It was just something that I got so much pleasure out of and it was something that got our employees excited, kept them excited, kept them motivated.
For visitors, the experience was a memorable one. Wined and dined at some of the Delta’s finest restaurants, including Giardina’s in the Alluvian hotel, many returned impressed by their brief stay and by Viking’s swanky digs. “Those things were indelible when they went back and were selling that appliance”, Crump said. “That gave the Viking range, that hunk of stainless steel, a heart.”
The luxury boutique hotel and upscale, classically Southern restaurants joined Viking’s cachet in drawing tourists to town. Visitors on couples’ retreats and girls’ weekends booked up the hotel, signed up for classes at the cooking school, and toured Viking’s factories—something the New York Times called in a 2004 travel profile “the stove groupies’ pilgrimage.”
If the investments in Greenwood’s downtown paid dividends for Viking’s sales, they also reversed the seemingly inevitable demise of its historic core. Shortly after the Alluvian opened, two of the last major businesses downtown—the Bank of Commerce and the headquarters of the Greenwood-based cotton marketing cooperative Staplcotn—scrapped tentative plans to relocate to the outskirts of town and instead invested in major renovations of their buildings. As boutiques, antique stores, coffee shops, and jewelers popped up in Viking-owned buildings along Howard Street, Greenwood’s downtown took on a vitality it hadn’t seen in decades. “At one point, Howard Street property was hard to get your hands on”, said Jim Quinn, a Greenwood banker, of the years shortly after the Alluvian opened. “Just about every building in there was touched by Viking in some way. . . . Had that revitalization not happened with Fred’s efforts, I think our downtown would be dead.”
The steady hum of the production lines at Viking’s factories and the growing ranks of executives, designers, engineers, and advertisers at corporate headquarters also brought an infusion of cash, jobs, and outside talent to Greenwood. Tish Goodman, a realtor, said that during Viking’s heyday more people in town felt comfortable enough to drop a down payment on a home. “We had a boom in the real estate market because people finally had money that they could buy houses.”
That the company’s investments redounded to the town’s benefit clearly pleased Carl, who had spent much of his childhood in Greenwood sketching out additions to his hometown. “How wonderful is that?” Carl marveled. “I can do it to help build our brand but I can also do it to help our community. Boy, that’s great.”
With Viking’s sales and revenue booming alongside luxury home construction, the company also generously supported a long list of local charities, civic groups, and community events. For years, nearly every charity raffle or auction in Greenwood garnered generous donations of Viking products. Churches and the Greenwood Fire Department’s stations were outfitted with Viking appliances, as were the homes of all the state’s university presidents and the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson. When a PGA Tour golf tournament in Jackson lost its major sponsor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Viking stepped in to fund the renamed Viking Classic in order to keep it in state. Whenever local elected officials needed to head somewhere on official business, the company made available one of its corporate jets.
The company’s largesse made it the first stop for any group trying to raise funds—and it usually obliged. “I was never questioned for any kind of donation to an event”, said Persons, who in his eventual role as vice president for public relations was in charge of Viking’s corporate giving. “We tried to do whatever we could to donate products.”
“They supported everything, every event that went on in Greenwood”, said Carolyn McAdams, the town’s current Mayor. “Fred was always the first person that anyone went to for a donation of any kind.”
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Viking’s rise on Greenwood. Locally made appliances popped up on television cooking shows, in profiles in major publications, and in the kitchens of the wealthy and powerful across the country. Smith recalled spotting several in Harrods, the famously swanky London department store. The once dying Delta town now found itself on a national stage. “It’s really a remarkable story for a small town like this”, Smith told me over coffee at the upstairs cafe inside Turnrow Books, the bookshop that Carl brought to town.
By the early 2000s, Viking’s success in carving out a market for expensive, luxury kitchen appliances began to attract competitors to this high-end, high-margin market. The same mainstream manufacturers that once turned down Carl’s requests to build a commercial-style range began producing heavy duty stainless-steel products of their own, often undercutting Viking on price, while upstart market entrants looked to take a bite out of Viking’s market share. As competition increased, Viking broadened its product lineup, offering a growing assortment of appliances, including dishwashers, refrigerators, and toasters, while also selling Viking-brand kitchenware and cutlery. With its comprehensive product line and consistent, integrated design, Viking became a go-to supplier for developers and homebuilders looking to outfit high-end homes with a complete luxury kitchen.
Then, in late 2007, the financial crisis struck. As work slowed and then virtually stopped on the construction of new McMansions, high-end subdivisions, and luxury condominiums, bulk sales of Viking’s ever-growing line of ranges, ovens, and refrigerators dropped off a cliff. Within a year, sales fell to less than half their 2006–07 peak of $400 million. The impact on Viking’s bottom line was devastating. “It knocked us to our knees”, Carl admitted.
Cutbacks at Viking hit the workforce hard. In several rounds of layoffs between 2008 and 2010, the company eliminated about 30 percent of its peak workforce of 1,200. Company executives cut costs elsewhere as well, and reconfigured vendors and suppliers to save cash. Deep as those cuts were, though, they didn’t cut to the quick. Viking executives continued to invest heavily in promoting the brand and lifestyle, while designers continued to push a growing lineup of Viking-brand appliances. But sluggish sales in the face of economic stagnation and an anemic housing market squeezed Viking’s profits hard.
Then, in 2012, Viking’s ownership agreed to sell the company to Middleby Corp, an Elgin, Illinois-based maker of commercial kitchen equipment, for $380 million. According to Carl, several suitors had approached Viking’s owners over the years, including Middleby. Private equity firms, individual investors, and other appliance manufacturers also made plays for the company, but the generous valuation and Middleby’s reputation for letting each of its units operate relatively autonomously appealed to both Carl and the rest of the company’s leadership. Negotiations wrapped up a deal on New Years Eve, closing just before the start of 2013, when a possible hike in the capital gains tax was set to go into effect.
Under the terms of the deal, Carl stayed on as chairman of Viking. Middleby also took ownership of the hotel, spa, cooking school, and dozens of downtown Greenwood properties. In his email to Viking employees immediately after the sale was announced, Carl wrote that it would be “good for Viking, good for Viking employees, and good for Greenwood.” Carl told the local newspaper, The Greenwood Commonwealth, that Middleby’s reputation for leaving local management in place “was very reassuring to me.” (Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at the Commonwealth from September 2013 until July of this year.) Many of Middleby’s subsidiaries remain in the towns where they started, he continued, with the original founders still at the helm in several; “When I observed that, that told me that it would be very unlikely that there would be any changes in our operation or in the location of the company.” It did not take long for the gleam to dull.
Middleby’s CEO Selim Bassoul, a shrewd, Beirut-born dealmaker who has led the company since 2000, announced two days after the sale on a conference call with investors that he was expecting dramatic increases in profitability at Viking, including doubling its profit margins from 10 to 20 percent within three years and aggressively pushing sales abroad. Everyone at Viking knew that pushing margins that high would almost certainly require a reconfiguration of the company’s traditional operations. Even during the pre-recession peak, the company earned only about 15 cents in profit for every dollar of revenue. Reconciling both those propositions—business as usual and dramatic increases in profitability—was a virtually impossible task. In retrospect, the dramatic clash of corporate cultures seems almost inevitable.
Under Bassoul, Middleby had delivered astounding returns to investors through a string of acquisitions and a ceaseless devotion to quality and profitability, cultivating a no-frills corporate culture that seemed destined to conflict with the Viking ethos. The company’s suburban Chicago headquarters are modest and its corporate staff bare-bones (if exceptionally well-paid). Selling almost exclusively commercial appliances before the Viking acquisition, it had only a threadbare marketing budget, relying instead on its products’ reputation for durability and quality.
It didn’t take long for the other shoe to drop: Exactly one month after closing the acquisition, Middleby announced that 20 percent of the company’s 1,000 workers would lose their jobs. The same day, Carl, who had initially said he planned on spending several more years at Viking, abruptly announced his retirement, writing to his employees that his decision came only “after much thought, reflection, prayer, and gut-wrenching self-assessment.”
Unlike earlier cuts, the first round of Middleby layoffs also hit the executive suites of Viking’s Front Street headquarters, with Persons, Director of Marketing Bill Andrews, and advertising manager Bob Gregory all receiving pink slips. Despite Bassoul’s assurances to employees that layoffs at the company would be made in a single move, several rounds have followed. Ten months later, the company’s president, former Chief Financial Officer Brian Waldrop, announced his resignation the same day that Middleby axed about seventy more Viking employees, including several executives. Since the sale, Middleby has cut away much of Viking’s in-house marketing department, eliminated most customer-support positions in Greenwood, closed its dishwasher factory, and roughly halved its workforce in the Greenwood area.
Carl declined to comment directly on the layoffs or his own departure from the company, though it’s not tough to imagine the founder and former CEO’s feelings about the deal. Shortly after Waldrop’s resignation, Carl’s wife wrote in an email to the Commonwealth that the cuts were “sickening”, “disturbing”, and “heartbreaking.” When asked earlier this year by WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky if he would still have sold the company to Middleby knowing how things have turned out, Carl answered, “Probably not.”
During quarterly conference calls with Middleby investors, Bassoul—who has since added Viking president to his list of titles—has heralded Middleby’s efforts to improve profitability at Viking. This effort has included “efficiencies” and “synergies” found with Middleby’s other divisions. That came to include Viking’s network of previously independent North American distributors, which Middleby bought up in a series of deals in 2013 and 2014 for a total of $68 million, eliminating a number of supposedly redundant jobs and facilities in the process.
“The bottom line becomes the all-consuming driver for the company. Those other things that drag on the company are jettisoned”, said Crump, pointing out the sea change in the company’s corporate culture. Although the company continues to operate the Alluvian hotel, and does so at a profit, it’s done away with a number of other perks, including its corporate hangar, which was later sold to Carl. It bailed on the planned renovation of the grand though crumbling Elks Lodge in downtown (the lodge was donated to Carl’s foundation, which renovated and reopened it several months later).
In a global economy marked by worldwide supply chains, hyper-efficient capital markets, and a heavy emphasis on the bottom line, Carl’s brand of community-oriented, paternal capitalism now seems out of place. Although Carl insists he thought in 2012 that he’d found the right match in Middleby, the public company’s drive to boost earnings and maximize value for its shareholders is peeling away many of the social benefits Viking baked into its business model and from which Greenwood benefited.
Middleby’s intense focus on the bottom line has handsomely rewarded the company’s shareholders. Since acquiring Viking, its stock price has risen 130 percent. It’s also enriched Middleby’s executives, including Bassoul, who earned more than $133 million in salary, bonuses, stock options, and stock sales in 2013 and 2014. The generous pay for Middleby’s leadership, perhaps the only lavish expense at an otherwise frugal company, led the majority of investors to vote down the company’s compensation package in 2013. Although such “say-on-pay” votes aren’t binding, shareholders’ rejection of the plan at a fast-growing company like Middleby is striking: About 98 percent of public companies receive shareholder approval each year, most by wide margins. After retooling pay packages, shareholders narrowly passed Middleby’s compensation plan in 2014 with just 53.3 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Middleby and Viking officials began lobbying state legislators in Greenwood’s district and other local leaders to secure $12 million in grants from the state government to overhaul its refrigeration plant in Greenwood ahead of stricter Federal and European energy regulations, warning that the company would have to shutter the plant if it didn’t get state aid. However, shortly after the company axed about a hundred more workers in a round of layoffs in March of 2014, Viking officials abruptly announced they wouldn’t be pursuing the $12 million package—which came with a number of stipulations, including maintaining at least 600 Mississippi employees—and would instead cover the cost of retooling the plant on its own.
In Greenwood, the transition from a munificent and chummy private ownership to a far thriftier set of distant corporate managers has sent ripples through the community. The initial sale led to concerns that the changes could hit the town’s shops and restaurants hard, as well as fears that Greenwood’s downtown real estate market—dominated by Viking’s corporate holdings—would soon be in free fall. While Middleby has continued to support local civic groups and charities, its contributions haven’t matched the past torrent of donations that flowed from Front Street. “Maybe [the sale’s] biggest impact has been on charities”, said Quinn, the local banker. “Viking under Fred’s leadership was a great corporate citizen for being the friend of local charities, champion of the causes that needed championing around here. Viking is still generous under the new leadership and new ownership, but not as much as in the past. I’m not saying that’s a fault of theirs. It’s just reality.”
Tim Kalich, the publisher of the Commonwealth (and my former boss), wrote in a column shortly after the sale to Middleby that “Viking has spoiled Greenwood”, warning that a culture shift would almost certainly be on the horizon. “We’ve counted on it not just to be a primary job creator but the driving force for downtown development, a talent pool for civic leadership and a financial backer of most every good deed. It has done a lot for this city over the years that did not contribute to the company’s bottom line in an identifiable way”, Kalich wrote. Although Kalich predicted that investment by the new owner would likely keep plenty of jobs in the Greenwood area, “It may be too much to hope for all the rest as well.”
The repeated layoffs have also left many in town nervous that Viking might decamp entirely, either for cheap labor abroad or for one of Middleby’s other production sites elsewhere in the county—though Middleby and Viking officials have repeatedly stressed that there are no plans to relocate. Despite the company’s once outsized role in the Greenwood economy, the cuts have hardly devastated it. Leflore County’s unemployment rate rose from a low of 6.1 percent in November 2007, just before the financial crisis struck, to a January 2010 high of 17.5 percent at the height of the recession. In the five years since, the rate has steadily declined, despite the substantial layoffs at Viking, and in April of this year it dipped below 10 percent for the first time in nearly eight years. Although some small businesses have been hit hard, other area companies—including power-tool manufacturer Milwaukee Electric Tool Co., which has a large factory here—have hired many of those let go by Viking. “You fear that when something we depend on so much changes ownership, the town’s going to shut down with it”, said Quinn. “That didn’t happen. That’s the great thing about Greenwood: It seems to be able to survive what other small towns in the Delta can’t.”
On the main downtown commercial strip, many of the storefronts that once boasted new shops now sit empty. At least two dozen Viking-owned buildings in downtown are now quietly listed for sale, something McAdams, the Mayor, calls a potentially “scary situation.” However, the painstaking renovations bankrolled by Viking have saved most from the brink of collapse, and a handful of shops and businesses remain open—far more than two decades ago, when downtown seemed in danger of being abandoned entirely. “Commercially, we’ve got too many empty buildings”, said Goodman, the realtor, “but at least they’re better looking.”
Even as Viking has repeatedly announced additional cutbacks and layoffs at the company, Middleby’s executives have continually touted the potential for dramatic growth at Viking as a redesigned lineup of appliances heads to market. Viking engineers and Middleby executives say they’ve addressed what they describe as pervasive quality issues with many of Viking’s products. They forecast booming sales, including of Viking-brand products from other Middleby divisions.
So many in Greenwood remain cautiously optimistic that an uptick in sales might bring on another hiring spree, at least at Viking’s factories on the outskirts of town. Yet with each additional round of layoffs and cutbacks at the company—about one hundred workers were let go this past spring—more rumors swirl that Viking might be inching closer to leaving Greenwood altogether. Few think much activity will ever return to the company’s downtown corporate offices, which once teemed with well-paid white-collar workers. Even in the middle of the workday, the company’s offices are quiet and the reception desk sits empty, with only a few cars parked in the otherwise vacant spots outside. When a movie production team descended on Greenwood to shoot a Western starring Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth last fall, Viking rented out most of the first floor of its Front Street headquarters to serve as a production office.
The fate of Greenwood once seemed inexorably tied to the march of shiny stainless-steel Viking stoves. These days, most in town are now looking elsewhere for the next engine of growth—including Carl, who’s launched a new local startup to manufacture luxury prefabricated housing with a small staff comprised largely of former Viking colleagues. Last August, Carl’s new venture bought up a local building-supply retailer, HomeFront, which is currently busy renovating a former furniture store as a high-end showroom—just across the street from the Alluvian hotel.