Carol Blaylock and more than a dozen other employees laid off from Henrico County-based Colortree Group saw the signs of distress in the last couple of weeks.

Paper needed by the company for products it printed for the direct-mail industry was in short supply or not available. Parts for the presses couldn't be ordered. Packages of finished envelopes and flyers couldn't be shipped out. Even plastic garbage bags were gone.

Employees often stood around with little or no work to do.

"Things had really slowed down," said Blaylock, the company's director of imagination who worked there for the past 10 years. 

"It had gotten really uncomfortable coming to work," she said. "We were trying to keep ourselves busy and listen to the messages we were getting from upper management, which said things were going to be fine. They told us things are going to turn around. We're just in a slump and it's going to get better. Just hang on."

But Monday, the company, which has operated for more than 30 years printing direct-mail envelopes, flyers, brochures and other products, abruptly shut down. It laid off all 240 employees.

"It's just awful," said John Herring, who worked for Colortree for the past 20 years. "I'm 57 and I have to start over. I have had a job and worked every day since the day after I graduated from high school."

Employees said they were told around noon on Monday to meet at 1 p.m. that day in a large conference room at Colortree's offices and plant at 8000 Villa Park Drive, located off East Parham Road near Brook Road.

That's where a representative hired by the company gave them the bad news: Colortree was laying off workers and closing operations because it had defaulted on bank loans and the bank was no longer extending credit to keep operations going, according to six workers who attended that meeting.

Employees were given 15 minutes to vacate the plant, they said.

"They did not give us any notice they were shutting down," said Tammy Powell, who worked there for seven years. "They kept telling us that it is going to be OK. I just felt it was wrong the way they did us. They just sent us out without anything."

She and other employees need to find jobs and health insurance. They were not given any severance pay. Workers say they are supposed to receive their final paychecks this Friday.

"We were family. Our livelihood is just like depressing," Powell said.

Willie Anthony, a 16-year company veteran, said the shutdown was shocking.

"We worked from a 12-hour shift down to an 8-hour shift. We went from having paper all over the place to not having nothing. We would come in some days and have no work to do. Then all of sudden they come in one day [on Monday] with no warning," Anthony said. "I am trying to stay composed right now."

***

Anthony, Powell and other former employees spoke on Wednesday morning about the final days working at Colortree Group after attending a meeting held by the Virginia Employment Commission about what steps they need to take next after being laid off. About 125 people attended the morning meeting, held on the Parham Road campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

During the meeting, officials provided information to the laid-off employees about exiting from the company's 401(k) plan, about signing up for unemployment benefits and about enrolling in health insurance. Another speaker talked about various seminars and programs to find a new career or receive training for another profession.

A mini job fair was held in between the employment commission's morning and afternoon sessions. About seven employers took applications and conducted initial interviews, including TemperPack, Reynolds Consumer Products and Lutron Electrics.

Colortree Group filed a federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act, notice informing officials of the job cuts at its plant. The notice did not give a reason for the closure.

“Many of Colortree’s approximately 240 employees at this worksite will be laid off as a result,” according to the letter, signed by James “Pat” Patterson, Colortree’s president and chief executive officer.

“The anticipated closure of certain Colortree divisions, and resulting layoffs, will be permanent,” the letter said. “Employees will be paid through that date [June 3] regardless if the facility or division in which they work closes sooner.”

Patterson, who also owns the business, could not be reached for comment. 

Employees said he had cleaned out his office during the weekend. Blaylock said she saw him walking the halls of the Colortree Group offices early Tuesday afternoon when she was there to retrieve her personal belongings.

Patterson became sole owner of Colortree Group in late 2016 when his Stingem Management Group LLC acquired Boathouse Capital’s 72 percent stake in the company that he didn’t own. Patterson and Boathouse Capital had acquired Colortree and Graphics Innovations, a specialty printer of direct-mail products, in 2011.

The company reported sales of $57 million in 2018, a 4% increase from the previous year of $55 million, according to the trade publication Printing Impressions. Colortree Group was ranked No. 97 in Printing Impressions’ ranking of the top 400 printing companies in the U.S. and Canada.

Colortree Group is a private company so its financial results are not available.

***

Sarah Laumer, who worked in billing and accounts receivable, also said she could see the signs of a company in distress. In the last several weeks, company executives had held an unusually high number of meetings.

She said she once handled about $250,000 in billings on a typical day. This past Friday, she sent out about $10,000 in invoices.

"People knew something was going on," Laumer said.

She and other employees said orders were canceled by customers when the company couldn't perform the work.

Other employees said executives told them in recent weeks that the owner had possible offers to sell the business or to refinance the debt. Now, most workers figure they were told that to quash the rumors.

Despite all of that, Colortree Group gave employees no warnings, Laumer said. "They didn't show the respect for the people who have worked there so long. Everyone can understand that a business can fail. But they kept telling us everything is going to be OK."

Blaylock said she should have listened to her "gut and not listen to what we were being told."

"My emotions range anything from anger to sadness to numbness to laughter," Blaylock said.

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