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Columbia plant closing
George Lane IR staff photographer - Mike Bertram, plant manager for the Helena division of Columbia Paint & Coatings, stands outside the soon to be closed plant.

Ten jobs and a significant slice of Helena's industrial history will disappear in March with the closing of the Columbia Paints & Coatings manufacturing plant on Dodge Avenue.

Founded in Helena in 1947, Columbia Paints was bought late last summer by Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams, which announced earlier this month that the local plant will be shuttered.

Production capacity here will move to the Columbia plant in Spokane, Wash., which is also where the company's sales, marketing and operations offices have been stationed since 1974.

"It's tough to handle, but we're a small group and we take care of each other here," said Mike Bertram, manager of the local plant and, with 40 years' experience, the longest-serving employee in the company. "It's a sign of the times, but it's going to be tough to say goodbye. This is a small enough company where everybody was on a first-name basis, and that meant a lot."

All told, Columbia employs around 350, including workers at 41 retail locations throughout the Northwest that will remain open and under the Columbia name. At the time of the merger, Columbia was the 34th-largest paint and coatings company in North America.

Sherwin-Williams spokesman Mike Conway said negotiations are ongoing with the union that represents seven of the 10 local workers regarding severance and re-training plans, with details for the other three workers to follow.

"Sherwin-Williams has a rich, 141-year history, and when companies are acquired, they become part of the Sherwin family," he said.

Conway said it's too early to tell whether local workers will have opportunities to transfer to Spokane, but said that the Columbia name -- and 41 retail stores, including one on Lyndale Avenue here -- will remain.

"The brand names and stores will remain in place so our service to the customer is not impacted in any way," he said.

The local plant manufactures white and light tinted water- and latex-based paints for both interior and exterior use. Conway declined to say how much paint is produced locally, but it represents about a quarter of Columbia's total output, and sales for the firm surpassed $30 million a year a decade ago.

Columbia Paint Co. was established on July 9, 1947, as a subsidiary of American Chemet and founded by the same four men who founded that company the previous year.

The name was chosen, the story goes, because a twig thrown into the Little Blackfoot River just 15 miles west of Helena would eventually reach the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, and it was down the river's drainage that the founders believed lay the company's greatest potential for growth.

Columbia bid on and won its first State of Montana highway contract the next year, supplying 10,000 gallons of highway paint. For several years, the Department of Transportation was one of Columbia's major customers.

Throughout the 1950s, the company opened retail stores across Montana as well as in Spokane and Pocatello. It was "spun off" from Chemet and became a stand alone company in 1964.

The seed for this month's closure announcement may have been planted in 1971, when Columbia purchased Jones and Porter Paint Co., a small manufacturer in Spokane. A new factory in Spokane accompanied the move of several front office functions from Helena three years later. The financial and administration offices left Helena for Spokane in 1988.

The local plant stopped making oil-based paints in the early 1990s, but in 1997 won a $1.5 million contract with the Idaho highway department to provide 250,000 gallons of a new water-based, lead-free traffic paint.

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Bertram, who began as a part-time paint mixer during traffic season before working his way up to plant manager, said Columbia's employment level in Helena has been fairly steady for several years, but is far below the local plant's peak capacity when this was the firm's headquarters.

"In its heyday, when we had the corporate offices in this building along with manufacturing, we probably had upwards of 40 people in this building," Bertram said.

Bertram worked in shipping, receiving, boxing, labeling and mixing along the way. He transferred to the Spokane office for two years, but jumped at a chance to return to Montana when the opportunity to manage the local plant arose.

The first local retail shop was on the 200 block of North Rodney just east of downtown. Columbia also had a storefront at its Dodge Avenue plant at one time before opening the current location on Lyndale.

Sherwin-Williams operates more than 3,000 retail stores, including one in Helena within eyesight of the Columbia factory, in all 50 states. The company this week was named 98th on Fortune magazine's list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For."

In addition to paints bearing the corporate name, Sherwin-Williams brands include Dutch Boy, Krylon, Minwax and Thompson's Water Seal.

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