Greenbrier axes 200-plus jobs; CEO criticizes Portland business climate

Greenbrier axes 200-plus jobs; CEO criticizes Portland business climate
Greenbrier CEO Bill Furman (Photo by Cathy Cheney, Portland Business Journal)

Stymied by delays in a coal export proposal and by a railcar customer’s buying habits, The Greenbrier Cos. plans to lay off more than 200 workers at its Gunderson LLC plant in Northwest Portland.

The layoffs, or furloughs as Greenbrier CEO Bill Furman prefers to call them, will start within a few months. Meanwhile, the company plans to move a 50-person office from downtown Portland’s Albers Mill Building to its Lake Oswego headquarters in October.

The actions come as Furman, under pressure to boost shareholder value at the $1.8 billion company, grows increasingly frustrated with Portland and Oregon as places to do business.

Furman said Friday he’s vexed by Oregon’s legislative leanings, delays in issuing permits and a sense of declining public safety, among other issues.

Greenbrier (NYSE: GBX) isn’t likely to depart Oregon, but there’s a real chance its presence could be sharply diminished over time if the city and state don’t offer a better business environment.

Job cuts at Gunderson, which employs 817 people, stem in part from customer TTX Co.’s reduced interest in buying the intermodal railcars produced there. Furman said Gunderson has done well in the past building inventory by projecting Chicago-based TTX’s demand, but that TTX pulled back this year.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has failed to issue permits for the Morrow Pacific coal export project, which would send coal from Montana and Wyoming down the Columbia River for export to Asia. Australia’s Ambre Energy has awarded Greenbrier’s Gunderson division a $55 million contract to build 15 enclosed barges for the project. If the DEQ had acted by now, Gunderson would be hiring instead of laying off, Furman said.

Furman said Portland and Oregon is taking its industrial base for granted.

The city, for example, has done little to show support for the Lower Willamette Group, a set of 14 large property owners involved in clean up of the Portland Harbor, a Superfund site. The group was fined $125,500 April 16 by the Environmental Protection Agency over its assessment of health risks from harbor pollutants. The city is a group member.

Furman also criticized downtown Portland’s public safety, relating his concern this month when he was accosted and prevented from reaching his car by three men as he departed South Park restaurant.

The city reports that major crime is down 13 percent so far this year.

Portland’s seeming inability to hold onto businesses — telecom company Integra said this month it will move to Vancouver — is also discouraging.

“We lose a little bit of ourselves every time that happens,” he said.

Furman criticized the state’s tax structure as bad for business, saying there should be no talk in the Legislature of raising taxes. The Legislature is considering raising corporate taxes and limiting income-tax deductions for high earners.

In December, Greenbrier rebuffed a takeover attempt led by activist investor Carl Icahn. Since then the company has set a goal of reducing capital costs by $100 million by August 2014. As part of that effort, the company is aggressively reviewing performance of all of its plants, which include major facilities in Poland and Mexico.

Related: What Bill Furman learned from Carl Icahn

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