Nostalgia thick as Stanback plant closes
Publication Salisbury Post
Date June 28, 2003
Section(s) Area
Page 0
Byline Rose Post
Brief Nostalgia thick as Stanback plant closes

By Rose Post, Salisbury Post

By Rose Post, Salisbury Post

Made in Salisbury.

For nearly 100 years local folks have felt a flutter of pride when the name of their nationally and internationally known headache powder popped up in conversation.

Yes, siree, they'd say, Salisbury is the home of Stanback, that headache powder people have been snapping back with since 1911 when a Thomasville woman wrote to a Spencer pharmacist for some of that headache cure he'd mixed up when he worked there.

Her "mail order" started an era, the late founder "Dr." Tom Stanback, who was a pharmacist not a doctor, used to say.

It ended Friday when the last production employees of the Stanback Co., now part of the large GlaxoSmithKline Corp., left the building a little early on their last day.

They'd achieved all their goals, met their quotas before they posed Thursday for a historic picture of all 37 members of the staff.

At one time the company employed nearly 80 people in the plant here. And at another time Stanback had as many as 160 employees nationally, including 100 sales representatives across the country.

The picture was taken in front of the Heilig Avenue employee entrance to the non-pretentious red brick building at the Five Points intersection of South Main Street and Klumac Road where Stanback products have been quietly produced for generations.

Then they went upstairs for a lavish "family" lunch and formal and informal goodbyes and an overflowing supply of tears they tried to conceal.

Of course, they knew they wouldn't be able to blink them back, so every table was well-dressed with small, inconspicuous boxes of Kleenex that emptied quickly.

"We're into nostalgia right now," said Karen Sides. "Everyone here."

Nostalgia had been there for days, weeks maybe, even months, ever since they learned that the present owners of the Stanback Co. -- GlaxoSmithKline -- planned to move all Salisbury operations and equipment to Memphis, Tenn.

Production of the company's lip conditioner, Chap-et, ended here last week, and the equipment that produced it has been disconnected.

Production of headache powders ended Thursday, but nostalgia was thick Friday, Stanback's official last day.

Friday couldn't be "much of anything but crying and saying goodbye," said George Kennon, local manager.

Employees usually left around mid-mornings on Fridays anyway, because they came in between 5:30 and 6:30 and got away about 10:30, so the unofficial but real goodbye day came Thursday.

And it was hard.

Every employee who could control the tears could have made a speech.

They understood the sale was the right thing to do, businesswise.

Moving to Memphis, Kennon said, "is just a dollars and cents thing."

Basically, it comes down to the fact, he said, that Block, the big company that merged with pharmaceutical giants that became GlaxoSmithKline, and bought Stanback, has many large facilities all over the world.

It was already producing two of the nation's three brands of powders -- B.C. and Goody's -- and now it will produce the third, Stanback, which it bought in 1999.

And Memphis is already making many more powders than Stanback.

But the Memphis plant doesn't make lip conditioners, so a Stanback product, Chap-et, will become a new line in its new home.

The move just makes sense, he said.

But no matter how right the sale is, closing the plant here was a pain in the hearts of everyone associated with Stanback.

"It's very sad," said Karen Sides, who's been with Stanback 10 years. "I hate to lose all my friends."

She hasn't found a job yet, but friends are her problem right now.

"It's like one big family," said Cindy Goodman, who'd been trying to hold back tears all day. "Some of these people know more about me than my mama knows."

"I was the batcher until six months ago," said Jeremy Young. The batcher is the man who mixes the formula, and when his job changed to maintenance, he said, "I had an idea about what was going to happen, but I didn't know.

"It's been a real good place to work. What made it nice was the people, both the management and the people you worked with."

Louette Honbarrier, who worked with the company longest -- almost 27 years -- couldn't say anything.

But Terrie Kinley, a 26-year veteran, whose mother, sister, aunts and a cousin had also worked for Stanback, could.

And she can take Stanback powder when something hurts -- and does.

"It's an art to taking one," she said. "That powder can get all over you everywhere, but it really works, and it works fast."

Nothing is fast about the way she feels now. That just stays with her.

"It's like losing my family," she said, "not losing a job. Bill Stanback was gone, but he wasn't gone. He always came back to see us. He was like a father. He cared. He took care of us. I think he put the people before anything else. ... He was fair with everything."

She fussed at him when he sold the business to Block.

"You promised me," she told him, "that you weren't going to leave me. You said you were going to live to be as old as your dad, but you're not 91 yet."

The Stanback Co. started in 1911 when Tom Stanback, who had been a pharmacist in Thomasville, broke up with his girl and moved to Spencer as a relief pharmacist at Rowan for the druggist, who wanted to go on vacation.

He gave samples of his new headache powders to railroad men who carried them up and down the Southern line, but that stayed a sideline until 1924, when he persuaded his younger brother, Fred J. Stanback, to try his hand at selling the powders to retail stores in the area.

And Fred became the ingredient that made the product a national success.

Their partnership, called Stanback Medicine Co., was formed with an investment of $1,500 from each of them.

Tom's son, W.C. "Bill" Stanback, joined the firm in 1948 and soon the products had expanded into foreign markets.

In a 1961 Salisbury Post story about the business' 50th birthday, Jim Hurley Jr. wrote that it was probably the "biggest business success story ever unfolded" in Rowan County. "Certainly it was the most familiar product 'made in Salisbury'during the 20th century."

He backed up the claim with facts.

Stanback had sold more than 3 billion headache powders since it started, more than 200 million tablets since they'd been introduced in 1948, and it was spreading word of its products with ads in 800 newspapers, 400 radio stations and national magazines. It was the first company in the country with a year-round advertising contract with Life magazine.

All that may be why Block Drug Co. tried to buy Stanback for 20 years.

"But we were not interested," Bill Stanback said. "Then in 1998, they came to us with an offer to buy Stanback but continue the manufacturing here in Rowan County. I was well over retirement age, and it looked like a good way for me to ease out of the business and still keep jobs for our manufacturing people.

"Block even looked at a larger facility here to expand production."

So the time had come.

"Despite my intentions to the contrary," he told his employees, "I've come to realize I'm not going to live forever."

None of his three children, Anne, John and Mark, were in the business.

He had also come to realize the family-owned business needed to associate with a larger family of consumer products and the increased advertising and promotional backing of a larger corporation.

So he sold.

"Then in 2000 Block was bought by the SmithKline French pharmaceutical company and within a year that had merged with the Glaxo Welcome pharmaceutical company to become GlaxoSmithKline."

Now, he said, "I am sorry to see this business and these jobs leaving Rowan County. ... I regret that we have to see another of our 'home town' businesses move away."

Closing it, George Kennon said, "is hard for all of us, but we'll get through it" -- by Aug. 29.

That's the date when all the machinery is supposed to be moved, and the building, owned by Bill Stanback and his brother, Tom, who rent it to GlaxoSmithKline, emptied.

But they'll remember it and know they were part of Salisbury history.

Stanback employees, who always felt like family, "are a very positive group," says Tim Norris, director of human resources for almost seven years. "When one door closes, another opens, and we're ending on a very positive note. Like Shakespeare said, 'All's well that ends well.' "

And he's sure it's going to end well for all of them.

"They're a classy group of people."

So classy that Terry Kinley said the maintenance staff always "did what they said couldn't be done," and Ellen Sanford added that "if you got a job here, somebody died or retired. Nobody ever left."

And no matter how many tears Terrie Kinley and her Stanback family shed, she left Bill Stanback smiling on behalf of all of them. She told him not to be sad or unhappy at the end of the Stanback Co. in Salisbury.

"It was the best time of my life," she said. "I spent 26 years with this company and consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world."

But Kelly Heffelfinger admitted she has a problem.

"My head's killing me," she said, and she feels sure a "made in Salisbury"Stanback headache powder isn't going to do the kind of sad headache she's got a bit of good.

Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or rpost@salisburypost.com.