What’s left of Hufcor, a 122-year-old Janesville firm that was once a global model for niche manufacturing and a local beacon of equity and friendship among owners and union workers, is officially on a bankruptcy auction block.
Last week, a Dane County judge placed Hufcor under court-appointed receivership, a legal bankruptcy action that gives the public and any interested, invested parties a view and a possible claim to what remains of the now insolvent company.
The move is likely the final death blow for what was the nation’s longest-operating manufacturer of moveable wall and door partitions.
Founded in Janesville in 1900 as a commercial awning manufacturer, Hufcor’s accordion-style wall partitions were once the standard for subdividing offices, convention centers and megachurches. Hufcor spiraled into bankruptcy over the last year after OpenGate Capital, a Los Angeles-based private equity firm that bought the company, fully outsourced all its Janesville factory operations to Monterrey, Mexico.
The decline appears to have started sometime after Hufcor was sold from family ownership in 2017 and bought as an asset to be owned and operated by OpenGate.
OpenGate, a firm that operates out of a 35-story skyscraper in Beverly Hills, has a long record of court fights over abrupt bankruptcies and closures of companies it has bought. One such company, Golden Guernsey Dairy in Waukesha, was abruptly shuttered in 2013 by OpenGate—illegally, the state of Wisconsin argued in court—just a few years after its acquisition.
Now, some of the union workers in Janesville who were cut loose by OpenGate cite problems, including what they say was the sudden and premature cutoff of insurance benefits that were part of a severance agreement.
Other papers filed in civil court and approved late last week by a Dane County judge mark the start of a corporate bankruptcy receivership that is aimed at sifting through Hufcor’s leftover assets and unpaid bills. More battles over remaining pieces of Hufcor will roll out in Dane County court in September, when civil court proceedings kick off in earnest.
The receivership is segmented into dozens of sub-filings, related lawsuits and legal notices of claim by creditors, suppliers, customers, corporate lawyers and former Hufcor employees. These include individuals and companies who allege they were charged for products Hufcor never sent them. Some say they were never paid for materials they sold and shipped to Hufcor.
Details of the emerging bankruptcy receivership, buried in omnibus court filings now managed by a Wisconsin law firm, only hint at how and why Hufcor’s fortunes soured as OpenGate rushed to move its manufacturing operation to Mexico.
On the human end, 166 mostly union workers who once built and shipped out products sold worldwide had a ringside seat to their employer’s rapid decline that left a vacant shell of a factory in Janesville.
Mark Bailey, 62, worked at Hufcor for 33 years as welder and later as an operator of computerized machines that milled everything from tiny bolts to long sway arms, all parts used in Hufcor’s moveable partitions.
Bailey got laid off earlier this year during OpenGate’s final shutdown of the Janesville plant.
He can tell anybody who still cares all about the 2,000 or so parts he said went into just one set of moveable walls.
Bailey was a younger worker when a former family ownership held huge holiday raffles and picnics. It was an era, Bailey said, when there was “no divide” between rank-and-file union shop workers and Hufcor's in-house suits, sales staff and product designers.
“The bosses showed empathy. They used to show how much they cared about the people working on their products. But that was before,” Bailey said.
Bailey remembers 2017, when he said OpenGate managers toured the factory floor and promptly prohibited local workers from having clocks or listening to transistor radios they'd been allowed for years at their work stations. He said employees from different divisions suddenly become siloed and standoffish when before the equity firm's buyout, engineers and sales workers often stepped over to the factory floor to mingle with line workers.
“It seemed like right away, they (OpenGate) weren’t trying to make any friends. Like they didn’t really want friendships between people who’d been there together a long time,” Bailey said.
Bailey was still working at Hufcor in June 2021 when its union shop, the Industrial Division of the Communication Workers of America Local 84811, mounted a public fight against OpenGate.
The union howled against Hufcor’s then-nascent plans to move all manufacturing from Janesville to a plug-and-play factory building in a sprawling industrial park in Monterrey, Mexico, near dozens of other outsourced U.S. manufacturing operations.
The union’s fight included public confabs with U.S. senators, full-page shame ads in The Los Angeles Times and union demonstrations outside Janesville's Hufcor plant last summer. The demonstrations drew hundreds of union activists, dozens of politicians, and representatives of other local labor unions.
OpenGate’s only public explanation for the Janesville shutdown has been a note delivered last summer from a third-party public relations firm. The note claimed the move to Mexico was a response to market vagaries linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and part of a phasing out of an aging, 40-year-old plant in Janesville.
Bailey stayed on at the Janesville plant through last winter, continuing the work of manufacturing parts for Hufcor products alongside a dwindling number of co-workers. By late last fall, he said, all the parts still being produced in Janesville were loaded in trucks and shipped out for full assembly in Mexico.
The same trucks moved out crate after crate of the Janesville plant’s machinery to be used at the new factory south of the border, he said. That was the point when some workers walked away and others remaining gradually stopped caring about the future of the company.
“Hufcor was a worldwide name. It was worldwide, but it ran out of here, too. I was kind of proud of that, living here, and being part of the world’s leading partition manufacturer,” Bailey said. “Now, it’s all in the dirt. It’s nothing.”
Ultimately, Bailey said, he and about two dozen other union workers were let go in April with severance packages. He said he believes the final layoffs in Janesville coincided with OpenGate’s apparent shutdown of its plant in Mexico, which he said he only ever heard snippets about.
Some former co-workers, he said, have since taken jobs at other local companies, thanks in part to a job fair program Hufcor was obligated to run to aid dislocated workers.
Bailey believes his union’s fight might have pressed OpenGate to continue running some operations at the Janesville plant as it moved toward a full exit to Mexico, but he said he and the last workers were let go months earlier than they were told would be the case.
As part of their severance, some workers got a health insurance package that Bailey said was supposed to be good for a full year. But he said his and some others’ policies were abruptly cut off just a month or two after the final layoffs. One of his former co-workers, he said, now has “$150,000” in medical bills not covered by insurance.
The workers’ legal claim, if they have any, is now a line item, one legal claim in a massive bundle of court machinations tied to the pending receivership.
Much in the Hufcor bankruptcy action still remains in limbo.
OpenGate—or somebody—could owe about $5 million over the next half decade to the local landlords who own the empty Janesville Hufcor plant at 2101 Kennedy Road, based on now-disputed lease agreements laid out in a court inventory of related lawsuits.
The company’s ill-fated Mexican operation also appears mired in what could be years of rent agreements that could go unpaid, according to court papers.
A Texas attorney claims to have rendered legal services vis-à-vis Hufcor under an “executive employment agreement” with OpenGate. It’s $420,000 worth of legal work, according to court papers.
Further down a long list of legal claims is a Lake Worth, Florida, church that said in court papers it never received 47 moveable wall panels it ordered and paid a $75,000 deposit for.
Local suppliers and satellite operators from Janesville, Green Bay and Muskego, to name just a few, also have sued Hufcor for tens of thousands of dollars in various breaches of contract, according to lawsuits tied to the bankruptcy.
Remaining local office
Remaining parts of Hufcor’s local operations had been moved to two tiny office suites on Woodlane Drive near a residential area, a few miles east of the shuttered Kennedy Road plant.
One afternoon last week, visible through a window in one of the suites was a small front desk with a Kleenex box perched on top. On a metal sign holder in front, somebody had stuck a computer print-off that read “Welcome to Hufcor.”
The doors were locked, the lights were off and no one was around.
Also last week, the loading bays at the Kennedy Road factory were idle. The big blue building stood silent, a shell stripped of all machinery and people.
Along the loading dock doors and in the grassy terrace of the plant’s back lot, an old chocolate milk carton lay on the ground, its bottom blown out after it was stomped flat by whoever discarded it. The carton’s sell-by date read June 2021, around the time Hufcor took a sharp turn south to Mexico.
The ground was further littered with long, black feathers and dozens of small, sun-whitened bones—evidence that Hufcor has been defunct long enough that turkey vultures now use site as a landing pad to dine on carcasses in solitude.
Circling above in the August sky were more than a dozen buzzards—the same breed of bird that had picked clean the bones of animals and left them in the factory lot.
And in the back corner of the property, a lone semitrailer stood in terminal repose on its front support posts. It was emblazoned with the Hufcor logo, an image of an eagle’s head above an American flag that’s frozen in mid-ripple.
The logo was once a display of national and corporate pride. If it were an epitaph, it might read: “Everyone knows what happened here. But does anybody care?”
In Janesville, that unanswered question might be about all that remains of Hufcor.