Harry & David plans thousands of hires

While Harry & David Holdings' future is being debated in a Delaware Bankruptcy Court, the company is still planning to hire thousands of workers locally this year.

Interim Chief Executive Officer Kay Hong, who succeeded Steve Heyer as the company's leader in February, issued a memo this week stating the company plans to hire 6,000 workers beginning in May and into the holiday season, including 1,400 for its Medford call center and another 1,000 at its Hebron, Ohio, call center.

While Hong's memo did not specify where the other 3,600 jobs would be, the majority likely would be in the Medford area, principally in orchards and warehouse operations.

Some additional employees could be added to the company's approximately 50 retail outlets. The hiring target for Medford, management confirmed, will be slightly less than last year, but comparable to the past two or three years. Nevertheless, the announcement was significant not only in signaling that the company still plans a robust hiring season but also because fewer of Harry & David's call center jobs will be outsourced.

The Ohio center was mothballed in 2010 and activity at the 750-seat Medford call center was reduced when much of the customer service work was outsourced to Cincinnati, Ohio-based Convergys.

"Last year we relied heavily on an outsourcing arrangement to support a substantial portion of our call volume rather than operate our own call centers," Hong wrote in the memo, a copy of which the Mail Tribune obtained.

"Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the results. We feel confident that we can improve the quality as well as efficiency of our customer service experience by supporting a larger percentage of customer calls in-house this year."

Hong said the company does not plan to reopen a call center in Eugene, where it ceased holiday operations last year after two decades.

Company insiders said the Medford gourmet food and gift business underestimated call volume heading into its peak weeks last year, creating training, staffing and response time difficulties. Raw materials arrived later than previous years and production schedules were compressed into a shorter period. A product review led to revamping the schedule this year with processes beginning earlier so fewer people can work more hours over a longer period.

"We are confident that we will be able to improve customer service this year by ensuring that Harry & David representatives on the phone lines have more experience with our products and our brand, and by eliminating many of the issues that drove customer service calls in the first place," Hong wrote. "We also believe that we will be better able to react dynamically to call volume with this plan."

About 800 people work in operations in Medford on a year-round cycle.

Harry & David has 1,800 acres of orchards in production. The company pulled out several blocks of older, less productive comice pear trees this winter. It takes about five years for new plantings to reach peak production and several newer ones have reached maturity along the Foothill Road and west valley areas. So company officials say they should have plenty of pears to meet demand.

The company has closed an office in Atlanta, where Heyer did much of his work, as well as a Los Angeles office. The staff remaining in Southern California will work out of homes until "a more cost-effective space" is leased, according to the memo.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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