A new flame: Candle factory breaks ground

Friday, July 17, 2009
Tom and Paul DiGiovanni pause for a moment with shovels for the groundbreaking of their company's candle factory.

Autom, the Phoenix-based religious supply company that opened its operations building early this year in Lewisburg's Business Park, broke ground Wednesday for its new candle factory.

Will & Baumer candle makers trace their roots 150 years to a Bavarian immigrant's backyard in Syracuse, N.Y., but in January 2008, Autom became the company's majority owner and last summer announced its production is moving here.

The two companies' officials had been talking about joining forces for about four years, but Lewisburg became an attractive alternative as explained by Paul and Tom DiGiovanni, the brothers who run the church supply company started by their father, Ignatius DiGiovanni, in 1948. Autom has been selling Will & Baumer candles for nearly 50 years.

"We're just bowled over by the way Lewisburg has embraced us with open arms," Paul DiGiovanni told a couple of dozen Lewisburg and Marshall County leaders.

They'd gathered in the air-conditioned distribution center before walking across a hot parking lot to the construction pad prepared for the candle factory.

"The oldest candle company in America" has a long history in upstate New York, Paul DiGiovanni said. However, Syracuse "doesn't hold a candle to Lewisburg, Tenn., because all the time we were there, nobody talked to us about not moving."

That's in contrast with the way they have been treated in Lewisburg, and so the DiGiovanni brothers look forward to "when we get together in February" for a ribbon cutting to officially open the plant, Paul DiGiovanni said.

Autom operations manager Monte Mertens said Feb. 1 is the projected opening day for the candle factory.

Mertens met with Lewisburg officials before the City Council's monthly meeting this week when a proposed property tax agreement was accepted.

"This isn't costing us anything," Councilwoman Quinn Brandon said Tuesday night when Councilman Hershel Davis seconded Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr.'s motion to approve the agreement. The vote was unanimous.

The 10-year agreement, technically, waives property taxes for a decade. Instead, the company makes in lieu of tax payments that start at 10 percent and grow by that much each year until the waiver expires and tax bills are paid thereafter.

That costs the city nothing because if the business didn't purchase the land, it would remain tax-free government property and without an investment for the building, there would be no improvement to tax.

Nor would there be new jobs and there could be 13-19 jobs opening at the candle factory by 2012, according to discussion during the Council meeting on Tuesday.

Wednesday afternoon, about two dozen local leaders, company officials and businessmen gathered at the building site for the candle factory for the ceremonial groundbreaking.

Thereafter, as bottles of cold water were distributed, Tom DiGiovanni said that Lewisburg's central location is important to the company's distribution operations.

Electrical power and weather are also important factors.

"It's because of TVA and the harsh winters in Syracuse," Tom DiGiovanni said of low cost energy and milder weather. "So, we win a couple of different ways.

"We ship gifts of faith and now we can ship them with Will & Baumer candles and have a happy family," he said.

Tom DiGiovanni also expressed an appreciation of Southern hospitality.

"This general area, we love," he said, acknowledging "a great sense of the people" and traditions.

And as City Council discussion on Tuesday indicated another industrial prospect in town, the Autom leaders spoke of another long-time business associate.

The DiGiovanni brothers have had business discussions with a Chinese businessman who's been in town recently, Paul DiGiovanni told the people assembled for the groundbreaking.

Tom DiGiovani said a company vendor based in China "was in the area [Atlanta recently] and we asked him to visit [Lewisburg.] It's always good to show your customers and the people you do business with... Everybody is impressed with the business and the area.

"When you see our Phoenix facility - it's nice, but it's not green like Tennessee," Tom DiGiovani said.

Asked if there's a chance to move more of the company's operations to Lewisburg, he replied, "You bet. We have some room to build here. We moved here because of the opportunity the city had..."

Asked about the city's so-called "spec building," built in the hopes that it will attract an employer, Tom DiGiovanni said, "It's useable," but at the moment, the company doesn't have a business or operation to move into that structure.

Meanwhile, the company had been partnering with Lewisburg businessman Jim Moon. Tom DiGiovanni said Moon had been supplying them with pencils bearing religious imprints and subsequently it was Moon's warehouses that were used to store some of Autom's equipment and supplies as they've worked toward expanding their business here.

Dignitaries present for the groundbreaking included Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett; Lewisburg Mayor Barbara Woods; the county's retail recruiter, Mike Wiles; City Industrial Development Director Terry Wallace; and John Chunn, president of Truette Construction, the contractor for Autom's building project. The new structure is to be on the west side of Veterans Drive, the one road built into the business park on the north side of Mooresville Highway just west of town.