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Highsmith sale sends 50 jobs to Madison

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JAMES P. LEUTE
December 21, 2010
— Employees of library services provider Highsmith learned Monday that their work commute will soon take them to the Madison area instead of Janesville.

That's because Chicago-based Grainger announced the sale of its Janesville-based Highsmith brand to DEMCO, a leading library supplier with facilities in Madison and DeForest.


Grainger acquired Fort Atkinson-based Highsmith in 2008 and moved the operation to Janesville.


Ralph Howard, vice president and general manager of Grainger Specialty Brands in Janesville, said Highsmith has about 50 employees. Most of them still live in Fort Atkinson, he said.


Grainger and DEMCO officials said Highsmith employees in Janesville will have the opportunity to follow the business to the Madison area. Those who don't will have other opportunities with Grainger Specialty Brands in Janesville, Howard said.


"It's not often that you have a situation like this where you can offer that kind of flexibility and options to employees," Howard said.


Highsmith employees learned of the sale Monday morning, and DEMCO officials paid a visit Monday afternoon.


"Clearly, there are great co-workers at Highsmith," said Mike Grasee, DEMCO's president. "We will get together with them so we can get to know them and they can get to know us.


"Most of those people went with Highsmith from Fort to Janesville. Now they will have the opportunity to come to Madison and DeForest."


The sale is a result of a reassessment of Grainger's specialty brands, Howard said. The company looked at all of its brands for growth opportunities, how well they aligned with each other and how much leverage they provided to grow the overall Grainger business.


"These changes support a focus on maintaining a portfolio of specialized brands in growing markets that are strategic to our core offering and leverage Grainger's distribution capabilities," Howard said. "We will continue to invest in the remaining specialty brands portfolio—including Lab Safety Supply, Imperial, Gempler's, Ben Meadows and AW Direct— and look for strategic acquisitions to grow the portfolio."


Grainger, which employs more than 800 people in Janesville, is considering the sale of four other brands that amount to a small percentage of its portfolio, he said.


"We've opted to be as transparent as we can with our employees," Howard said. "This will likely play out well into 2011, and until then, we will operate those brands as business as usual."


If the four other brands are sold, Grainger expects few if any job losses, he said.


Earlier this year, the city of Janesville made a $227,500 loan to Grainger that will be forgiven if the company creates 130 new jobs in the next three years. Howard said the company is on track to meet that commitment.


Grasee said he's excited about the acquisition that brings together two brands that have shared a long commitment to serving academic and public libraries.


In the library supplies market, Highsmith has deep roots in primary and secondary schools, Grasee said.


"This is really a growth story about combining two brands in a company that's committed to the library business," he said. "This gives us an opportunity to reach teachers.


"DEMCO has been in the classroom from a furnishing standpoint, but, with the addition of Highsmith, we can now offer teachers some great content."


DEMCO employs 245 and anticipates hiring an additional 60-75 people to support the Highsmith acquisition. Most will come from Highsmith, Grasee said.



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