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Waterford pulls up Irish roots

The renowned crystal maker is moving production overseas after a losing battle to stay profitable.

October 17, 2008|From the Associated Press

DUBLIN, IRELAND — Waterford Crystal announced Thursday that it would lay off most of its Irish workforce and move its factory production overseas after losing a six-year battle to boost sales, cut costs and control debt.

"We regret the necessity of ending large-scale manufacturing in Waterford, but we reaffirm our commitment to the city," said Chief Executive John Foley, referring to the company's 61-year-old base in the city of the same name in southeast Ireland.

It didn't say where the work was going, but the company has contracted much of its production to a manufacturer in Slovenia.

The company said about 125 employees in Waterford would remain once 280 specialist workers, chiefly involved in the blowing and hand-cutting of lead crystal, were laid off in coming months.

Officials said the Waterford plant -- one of Ireland's top tourist attractions with an estimated 300,000 visitors annually -- would become an almost exclusively tourism-focused operation.

They said dozens of craftspeople would continue to produce specialist pieces, including unique trophies and ornaments. Past examples include a crystal cowboy hat in the plant's visitor center and the illuminated crystal ball used to herald in the new year in New York's Times Square.

At its height, Waterford Crystal employed 3,200 people in Ireland at two plants, but in 2002 it began a rapid fall into debt.

Its smaller plant was shut down three years ago as executives began subcontracting production to plants as far away as Brazil.

Waterford's ability to produce profitably in Ireland has been shattered by rising competition from Eastern Europe; changing tastes on the part of consumers, who increasingly viewed crystal as an impractical anachronism; and perhaps above all by the chronic weakness of the U.S. dollar.

Americans traditionally have accounted for half of Waterford Crystal purchases, and until now, Waterford chiefs have sought to defend the company's Irish roots in fear that shifting to Slovenia, Poland or elsewhere might alienate the Irish American base.

But Anthony Jones, chief financial officer of parent company Waterford Wedgwood, said it had "become clear that maintaining manufacturing operations in Ireland at their current level is not feasible. Along with many other companies, we are, therefore, forced to find alternative means of production abroad."

He said the future Waterford facility would remain "critical to the DNA of our brand" and would focus on tourist visits and "some prestigious manufacturing."

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