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USDA honors Washington County's Whitney for wreath business venture

By Tom Walsh,
Bangor Daily News Staff
Feb. 21, 2012

WHITNEYVILLE, Maine — David Whitney has come a long way from a wrestling match with an older cousin at a family Thanksgiving Day gathering when he was only 8 years old.

"He clamped his hand over my face, and I wondered what that smell was," Whitney recalls. "It was balsam, as he was making money by tipping for wreaths. My mother wouldn't buy me candy, so I had to figure out how to make money on my own, so I went out in the woods and put some balsam tips in a baggy and tried to sell them."

Some years later, Whitney is now the head honcho of what's billed as the nation's largest producer of fresh Christmas holiday wreaths and home decorations. The seasonal business, Whitney Wreath, employs 455 people, Down Easters who work in November and December out of a new facility just south of Machias that was constructed with the help of a $3.3 million loan from Machias Savings Bank. That loan was guaranteed by the Rural Development Business and Industry division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Whitney and Andrew Dorr, who orchestrated the loan from Machias Savings Bank, were in Washington, D.C., last week participating in a ceremony that showcased 40 businesses from throughout the U.S. that have parlayed USDA-backed loans into successful manufacturing ventures. Whitney used his 20-year, 6 percent interest loan to construct a 75,000-square-foot wreath manufacturing facility that includes radiant heating, miles of telephone and Internet lines, and even more miles of electrical wiring.

Completed in 2010, the new facility allowed Whitney to streamline his business from nine locations in Down East Maine and Canada to five locations. It also created a modern shipping facility that helps the company to meet the needs of L.L. Bean, which offers Whitney wreaths and other balsam products to its massive customer base. That L.L. Bean contract, Whitney said, accounts for half of his company's production.

Whitney is now working on strategies for putting the new facility to use year-round. The wreath-making operation is one of four business ventures that he oversees, including 400 acres of wild blueberry cultivation. Whitney also runs tool rental and marine supply businesses in Machias.

"Our goal is to better utilize this building," he said. "We took a big risk in building it, and now that it's built we need to utilize it in more constructive ways that use it year-round. I have a bunch of ideas for new manufacturing opportunities that may come to fruition. I'm excited about it, but it's at the very beginning stages."

Whitney clearly enjoys the success that he has experienced since starting his wreath-making business out of the back of a pickup truck in 1984.

"I've taken a lot of risk, but it's paying off," he said Tuesday. "As a small-business guy who has taken on all this risk, I have no fingernails. In this economy, small business entrepreneurs are always struggling, so being one of 40 businesses invited by the USDA to Washington for this ceremony has been quite an honor."

While in Washington, D.C., Whitney and Dorr met with U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who for years has been a cheerleader for the growth of Whitney Wreath.

"Whitney Wreath has a first-rate reputation for excellence, and I commend David for his visionary innovation," the Maine Republican said after their meet-and-greet photo-op session on Capitol Hill. "I know I join countless Mainers in being tremendously proud to have such exceptional entrepreneurs who have put dozens of individuals to work, despite this challenging economic climate."

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