Closing of Florida Tile's Lakeland Plant End o

Lakeland, FL, Mar. 14--It won't be easy for Chris Sikes to drive by the old Florida Tile Industries site once the now-sold manufacturing plant is shut down. The widow of Florida Tile founder Jimmie Sikes is going to have pangs when her late husband's creation is really gone, according to the Lakeland Ledger. "I am coming to terms with the fact that that plant isn't going to be here," Sikes said. "I don't know how it'll hit me when they start tearing the building down. I've always felt like there is a little bit of Jimmie still there." Former chief financial officer Phillip Dunne said he was saddened when he heard about the plant's pending demise. "It was a big part of Lakeland for many years," he said. "The day it was announced, I called Chris (Sikes) and said I feel like I should go over there and lower the flag to half mast." It will leave a void for many longtime area residents who look back fondly on the Florida Tile-Sikes era. Jimmie Sikes started the company in 1954 and built it into a multimillion dollar business. He died in 1982, stunning a local community where he was held up as a rags-to-riches success story. It lived on after his death, run by Kelly Norton until 1995. Norton, who first began working for Sikes in 1969, was president and chief operating officer prior to the death of Sikes, who was CEO and chairman of the board. After Sikes died, his brother, Sonny Sikes, became chairman, and Norton became president and CEO. Norton said Jimmie Sikes had just successfully navigated the company out of a nearly disastrous venture into the carpet manufacturing business in the 1970s. "We had a nearly $13 million loss in the mid-70s," Norton recalled. "I think we even had close to a negative net worth. The only reason the banks didn't foreclose on us was because they didn't know what to do with an old tile plant." The carpet business had changed, Norton said, and Florida Tile was stuck. "Here we were with new plants and old technology," he said. "We were losing tons of money. Jimmie decided to get out of it. "That time period was a good example of Jimmie's vision," Norton said. "He was a true visionary. He could really see the trends, and capitalize on them. And he was always an optimist." Instead of wallowing in the losses, Sikes got going, Norton said. "The motto became, when in doubt, travel," he said. "We went to Italy." Equipment manufacturers there were happy to tell Florida Tile executives about how to make glazed floor tile, and that's what pulled the company out of its slump, Norton said. The new venture was undertaken in Shannon, GA and saved the day for the company. "Jimmie died in 1982, but he had set the company up with that for its tremendous growth in the 1980s." In that decade, Florida Tile had its heyday, he said. It was named several times on the Forbes list of best small businesses, and twice was on the USA Today list of best performing stock for the decade of the 1980s. Dunne said when the plant began to make money in the late 1970s after years of financial strife, Sikes called the executives together. "He said we're going to give some of this to the community," Dunne said. "We hadn't really made hardly anything yet. But that's how he was. Boy, he loved Lakeland." The plant continued to thrive for years, long after his death, Dunne said. "The company survived it well. Jimmie had trained people well." In this, its 50th year in business, Florida Tile's Lakeland manufacturing plant will close. It was announced in November that Milestone Merchant Partners' investment fund, MMP Capital Partners, had purchased Florida Tile from Illinois Tool Works. Soon after, officials said the plant would be closing in the early months of this year and shut down by mid-year. Matt Galvez, who was appointed CEO, said consumer and builder preference had shifted away from basic wall tile and trim to more fashionable, highly designed products manufactured at the other two facilities in Kentucky and Georgia. Norton said the timing is right for the plant to close. "It's just very sad," he said. "But technology--and business--moves on. They made the right decision." For Chris Sikes, the coming end of the Lakeland plant her husband built with such energy is a personal milestone--even though the family sold the business more than a decade ago. "I have continued to have a good relationship with the people there," she said. "I think of them as part of my family."