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Shop-Vac rebounds in Pa. under Chinese ownership after near-death experience

Andrew Maykuth, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — A year ago, the founding family of Shop-Vac Corp. left town and abruptly shut down the iconic vacuum company, leaving bankers to clean up the mess. Many workers feared that the company would be stripped and scrapped, and that production of yet another American brand would be sent overseas.

But something happened on the way to extinction. The bank indeed sold Shop-Vac's assets to a Chinese company. But the new owner, through its subsidiary GreatStar Tools USA, decided to keep Shop-Vac's operations in Williamsport, led by new American managers.

More than 200 of the old workers — about half of the previous Pennsylvania workforce — were retained or rehired this year. If the company rebounds as hoped, the new managers say, 100 more could be hired in the next year.

"We're still in business," said an elated Brian Machmer, a 25-year Shop-Vac veteran. He repairs the giant injection molds used to produce plastic canisters, hoses, and nozzles for wet-dry vacuums, which were invented here in north-central Pennsylvania and now occupy places in millions of garages and shops across America. "I plan on finishing my career here," said Machmer, 58.

"It's very positive, very exciting," said Robin Keller, 42, a product manager who was let go by Shop-Vac last year, found another job, and then was persuaded to return to his old company in June.

Previous owners left a mess

 

Keller and others said the new Shop-Vac's atmosphere is refreshing compared with the gloom of working at a company that had lost its bearings, got buried under debt, and could not compete.

Everybody knew there was mismanagement under the leadership of Jonathan Miller, whose father founded Shop-Vac in 1953. But the company's secretive leaders said little to the workforce and less to the community.

"It was scary," said Vincent Knauff, 59, the engineering lab manager, who has worked for Shop-Vac for half of his life. "You were scared to pick up the phone, scared to answer a page." Knauff, who was unemployed for more than four months after the closure was announced on Sept. 15, 2020, was rehired by the new owners this year.

Chinese owners went with a seasoned executive

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