Gulf oil spill stains linen company with red ink


ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — When a 47-employee business had its income cut by the oil spill, it turned to the Alabama Gulf Coast Business Support Center.

“They’ve been our only real option,” said Chuck Campbell, one of the owners of Liberty Linen and Janitorial Products and an affiliated company, At-Work Uniforms. “Without them, we’d already have had to make some very sad decisions for some employees.”

The Business Support Center is a project of the Alabama Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and Baldwin County Economic Development Center.

On Faulkner State Community College’s Gulf Shores campus, it has counselors who work with business owners to navigate the setbacks caused by the spill.

Officials said that two banks turned down Liberty Linen’s request for money to consolidate about $1.4 million in debt. With the help of the Business Support Center, the company is now talking to a third bank.

Norman Schuchman, Business Support Center manager, said Liberty Linens is like many of its peers. Gulf Coast businesses need help from banks, but credit is tight nationwide.

Liberty Linen has now done many of the things that center counselors advise businesses to do, developing a more organized operating plan and budget.

“They were doing a good job before, but they’re doing better now, and they can show that to a bank,” Schuchman said.

Liberty Linen supplies bedsheets, towels and cleaning supplies to area condominiums and hotels. At-Work Uniforms provides clothing and other items for some of the same businesses and to other businesses such as casinos on the Mississippi coast.

Business fell after Hurricane Ivan and stayed slow during the difficult economy, Campbell said. As with other Gulf Coast businesses, he hoped the early signs that things would improve in 2010 would come to pass.

Mike Saulters, company vice president, said the typical short but busy tourist season requires that many companies order inventory in advance and have material ready when needed.

“We’ve got a three- or four-week (delivery) turnaround,” he said. “In a 16-week season, that’s a long time.”

Spring break was promising, he said, and the company placed summer orders accordingly.

“Then the oil spill hit,” Saulters said, “and it was, ‘Oh, my gosh. We’ve got inventory out the wazoo over here, and people aren’t buying.’”

He estimated company losses at about $250,000. Liberty Linen filed a $150,000 claim with BP PLC, majority owner of the well that caused the spill. He said that compensation thus far had been just $5,000.

Saulters said he was told in July that the claim had been approved. But a BP representative called Aug. 13 to say he’d have to begin the process again after federal claims czar Ken Feinberg took over on Aug. 23.

Uniform sales to casinos in areas such as Nevada and Oklahoma have helped sustain the business, at least so far.

“The oil spill had a devastating effect on us, and we’ve received almost no help from BP,” Saulters said. “If our business was totally dependant on local business, we’d be out of business today.”

The company was founded in Mobile in 1955 as Uniform Rental Service, Saulters said. Campbell and his wife, Shannon, the primary owner, bought the company in 1989.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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