Alabama business roundup: headlines from across the state

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Here are some of this week’s top business stories from across the state: Blue Bell recall: Sylacauga ice cream plant samples contained listeria

Tests from environmental samples collected at Blue Bell Creameries’ Sylacauga plant on April 7 found evidence of listeria, according to documents released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The results came at the same time the Centers for Disease Control announced the end of its investigation into the listeria outbreak associated with Blue Bell’s ice cream, which underwent a product recall in April that has kept the ice cream off store shelves since.

According to the CDC, 10 people were infected with several strains of listeria in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. This does not include a South Florida man who reportedly experienced brain swelling in April, whose family found a tub of Blue Bell in their freezer which tested positive for listeria. That ice cream was manufacturing at Blue Bell’s Sylacauga plant.

The reported illnesses stretch back to January 2010. Three of the victims died, all in Kansas. None of the documented cases involved ice cream manufactured in Sylacauga.

Blue Bell this week released a statement saying it would “reassess everything” at not only its Sylacauga plant, but other facilities in Oklahoma and Texas. An April FDA inspection found employee procedure issues and equipment problems at the Sylacauga plant.

According to Blue Bell, the company is currently reviewing all aspects of operations.

“Because listeria is ubiquitous in the environment, the company has adopted a broadly focused remediation plan aimed at confronting any possible sources of contamination,” read a statement released through the company website.

The company says it has also provided the FDA with “a detailed list of corrective actions that are underway.” These came in response to FDA inspections at Blue Bell’s plants, like the one conducted in April at Sylacauga.

Even though its investigation is complete, the CDC recommends no one should eat any Blue Bell products still in their freezers, even if no one in the household has become ill. The products can have a shelf-life of up to two years, the agency says.

“Place the product in a closed plastic bag in a sealed trash can to prevent other people or animals from eating it,” it recommends.

Blue Bell CEO and President Paul Kruse said the company is slowly moving toward resuming production, but only after a careful reexamination of procedures in its plants.

“Once Blue Bell, the FDA and the applicable state regulators agree we are ready to reintroduce products into commerce, we plan to resume production with a phased-in selection of flavors and sizes, expanding only after our revised programs have demonstrated they are capable of ensuring product safety,” Kruse said. Huntsville sign company lands national contract with Cracker Barrel restaurant chain

A Huntsville company that designs and manufactures signs recently hit the big leagues when it landed a large contract with Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Old Country Store.

Trav-Ad Signs and Electric, which has been working with the Tennessee company for a year, earned certification this month to become a signage maker for the national restaurant chain. A sign developed and made in Huntsville will soon rise at a Cracker Barrel store set to open in July overlooking Highway 82 in Columbus, Miss.

It’s a major coup for Trav-Ad, which CEO Roy Cox purchased nearly 40 years ago with only $2,000. Today, the company is serving well-known local customers like Huntsville Hospital, ADTRAN, SAIC, Intergraph, Redstone Federal Credit Union and more.

Phillip Chenault, who handles marketing sales for Trav-Ad, said the small business is now one of only four approved Cracker Barrel sign builders in the U.S.

“In the sign business, to get a national vendor’s certification opens the door for Trav-Ad Signs to gain other national accounts and moves us into the big league of the sign world,” he said.

Cox said he was approached about working with the restaurant six or seven years ago when Trav-Ad was at its former location, but “respectfully and reluctantly” declined because the smaller facility couldn’t handle the request.  Cox moved his business to a new, much larger building four years ago on 58 Shields Road.

Building the pylon sign for Cracker Barrel’s new restaurant in Mississippi was a 10-week process, Cox said. The order will be delivered to the company for installation early next week.

“It’s a good feather in our hat and it gives other potential customers the self-knowing that they’re going to get good quality work from Trav-Ad,” he said.

Trav-Ad is also doing work for Bargain Hunt, which will install the Huntsville company’s signage soon at a store in Knoxville, Tenn.

Cox’s daughters, Sandi Singletary and Karen Nabors, work with their father at Trav-Ad. Singletary, vice president of Trav-Ad, said her dad has transformed the business from a very small shop that did a lot of work in her home garage to a 25,000-square-foot facility serving 30 employees.

“It shows a lot of the hard work that he put into it for 40 years,” she said. “We’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Birmingham Business Journal: Walter Energy negotiating bankruptcy reorganization

Hoover-based Walter Energy Inc. is reportedly in talks with senior lenders to negotiate a debt-reconstruction plan that could have the company filing bankruptcy before the end of the month.

The company is expected to send a revised plan to lenders, including Franklin Resources Inc. and Cyrus Capital Partners, according to a report from Bloomberg.

This includes a request for a debtor-in-possession loan that would allow the company to stay in operation while in bankruptcy.

Walter has been in reorganization talks for the last two months, as coal prices sit at their lowest since 2009.

A spokesperson for Walter Energy in May told the Birmingham Business Journal that up to 370 workers in Alabama could be laid off if the market does not adjust by mid-July.

Walter Energy reported a net loss of $80 million in the first quarter, which was down from a $92 million loss a year ago. Total revenue was down from $413 million to $290 million.

Walter’s largest and most crucial mine, No. 7 in Brookwood, recently saw 46 workers laid off as a result of the company’s financial woes.

The company and the creditor group have yet to agree on the structure of a bankruptcy plan. Creditors expect Walter’s proposal may include better recoveries for mine workers owed pension by Walter.

The first-lien creditor group has been pushing Walter to convert its debt holdings into equity and relinquish ownership to them.

The roots of reorganization

Over the last decade, coal production in Alabama has decreased substantially, dropping 17.2 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Walter, like other coal producers, has been hit particularly hard by the downturn in the steel market.

As countries with no domestic steel market like China, South Korea and Turkey produce steel at a feverish pace, the demand for metallurgical coal has slid, due to increased pressure on the top-producing countries to ease production to meet market demand.

This has dropped coal to its lowest per-ton cost since 2009–$52.85.

The company has also felt a negative impact from EPA regulations targeting coal-fired power plants.

Alabama Power, a major customer of thermal coal, cited federal regulations, saying it was forced to close two coal-fired units at its Walker County power plant and cease using coal at others in August 2014.

Walter may be the state’s largest firm reeling from the economic downturn, but this week, Birmingham Coal and Coke Co. announced it had filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy due to a struggling market.

Cahaba Contracting & Reclamation LLC and RAC Mining LLC, two related companies, also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization this week.

Birmingham Coal and Coke Co. and Cahaba Contracting & Reclamation are subsidiaries of Calgary-based CanAm Coal Corp.

The companies plan to continuing operations as they restructure their debts, according to court filings.

The Dothan Eagle: Alabama State Games bring economic boost from travel

Country Inn & Suites general manager Randy Brown looks forward to any event that brings tourists into town.

Brown said the events not only mean that more people will likely stay at a hotel during their trip, but he said it also means a boost for the local economy as a whole.

His excitement is shared by several hotel, restaurant and retail workers throughout the Wiregrass that are looking forward to more business while the Alabama State Games take place here Friday and Saturday.

According to Dothan Area Convention & Visitors Bureau director Bob Hendrix, Dothan is expecting about 2,500 visitors. Hendrix said he is hoping those visitors book between 300 and 400 rooms per night, which would result in an economic impact of about $400,000.

He said sports have always been a successful pull for people travelling to the area.

“Just the taxes that our visitors pay while they’re here keep every household in the Wiregrass area from having to pay an additional $400 in taxes,” Hendrix said.

“Not only will there be traditional sports but there’s going to be other sports that will be here. Slowly but surely, we’re becoming more than just a baseball town.”

Zack’s owner Dianne Whaley said her restaurant tends to be a signature sign of southern cooking for many people who travel the southeastern region.

“People still ask for the mom and pop restaurant because they’re saturated with the food chains in every area. We’re off the chain,” Whaley said.

“We get mega business from travelers going to and from the beach from Atlanta and we’ve had guests visiting from overseas like Ireland, England and Germany. We get highly recommended for our freshly cooked tomatoes, country fried steak and our fried chicken.”

Microtel Inn in Ozark was also expecting guests. Assistant manager Pam Stewart said she believed the extra outdoor amenities, which include a putting green, sports court, picnic area and horseshoe pit allow the hotel to cater to traveling families with children.

“Ozark is in a very good spot between Indiana and Florida and Kentucky for guests,” she said.

“We are usually always booked solid when large events are going on. The good thing about that is that once they stay, they will likely come back again and again.”

Brown of Country Inn and Suites said the hotel’s hot breakfast and indoor pool are assets for visitors.

“We offer things that people look for, like our indoor heated pool, without them having to wonder what the weather will be,” Brown said.

“Plus, they hit seven restaurants walking from our parking lot without even crossing the (Ross Clark) Circle.”

Hendrix said additions of new sports in the Wiregrass area may continue to draw visitors here.

“There’s archery, BMX and new sports like that that are really taking shape. We hope to bring more amateur junior tournaments to the area,” he said.

The Times Daily: Alabama has second-highest rate of cash home sales

Alabama had the second-highest percentage of home sales transactions made in cash in March in the United States, according to statistics released Thursday by Corelogic analysts.

Fifty percent of Alabama sales were in cash, second only to Florida’s 51.8 percent. The national average was 34.6 percent, down from 39 percent in March 2014.

The year-over-year share has fallen each month since January 2013, making March 2015 the 27th consecutive month of declines. Month over month, the cash sales share fell by 2.8 percentage points.

The cash sales share peak occurred in January 2011 when cash transactions made up 46.5 percent of total home sales nationally. Prior to the housing crisis, the cash sales share of total home sales averaged 25 percent. If the cash sales share continues to fall at the same rate it did in March 2015, the share should decrease to 25 percent in about a year.