As a teen, Bill Hibdon shoveled sawdust at his grandfather’s mill nearly 70 years ago. The experience left a mark, and he’d later start his own wood import business that he’d run for decades. But now, after 45 years in business, Hibdon is considering leaving the industry — and not by his own choice.
Hibdon says he’s been forced to consider ceasing operations at Hibdon Hardwood after two years of conflict with the Mexican government.
Hibdon Hardwood imports exotic woods from Mexico and Central America to north St. Louis. There, the wood is processed into parts for musical instruments. Most of Hibdon’s buyers, including C.S. Martin, Collings and Santa Cruz Guitars, use the parts to manufacture acoustic guitars.
For 25 years, Hibdon says his business has invested time and money in Mexico with no issues. The business has shipped more than 100 containers of wood, all properly documented and sourced from a sustained-yield in the Maya Forest, and never had any problems, according to Hibdon. That changed on June 9, 2021, when a container of wood valued at $83,000 was seized for seemingly no reason.
Hibdon says an unknown caller solicited a bribe of $30,000 in return for the containers, but he refused to pay. (Hibdon asked the RFT to leave out the name of the entity the solicitor belongs to in order to protect his supplier in Mexico.)
“He didn’t give his name, but he said ‘$30,000 will solve your problem,’” Hibdon says. “We reported this to the commerce department, and everybody else in the government that we spoke to.”
Two years later, the container of wood is still in Mexico’s custody, Hibdon says, as is a second container valued at $140,000 that was also later seized. Mexican state authorities told Hibdon they would not seize the second container, but federal authorities overruled this decision, and the container remains stuck at a port in Progreso in the Yucatán, according to emails between Hibdon and a trade specialist with the International Trade Administration.
Hibdon says federal officials in Mexico made several complaints about the containers, specifically about a form they said was completed incorrectly, which Hibdon denies.
“They were just drumming up excuses,” Hibdon says. “Nothing with any merit.”
The past few years have been full of stress for Hibdon and his wife, Nancy Fox, who’s a corporate secretary and part-owner of Hibdon Hardwood. They’ve sought help from the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, the Mexican Embassy and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, all to no avail, Hibdon says.
At one point, an International Trade Administration representative in St. Louis told Hibdon to hire an attorney in Mexico. So he did and filed a lawsuit. He won last July. Still, the containers were never released by la Fiscalía General de la República or Mexico’s attorney general.
“Really, they’ve destroyed our business,” Hibdon says.
Hibdon Hardwood wasn’t the only business ruined from the issue in Mexico.
Around 2015, Hibdon had a hard time finding staff in St. Louis. He had developed a good relationship with his supplier in Mexico, Elmer Vasquez, and decided to finance a sawmill for Vasquez to run in X-Hazil, Mexico. Hibdon and Fox say they lent Vasquez $400,000 to run the sawmill, and they spent five months a year between 2015 and 2021 in Mexico training people.
Vasquez had to close his sawmill as the battle for the shipping containers dragged on. The sawmill employed eight young men, most with families. Vasquez still owed Hibdon $275,000.
“We advanced them money to acquire wood shipments as long as we could, but we had to stop because they couldn’t ship anything,” Hibdon says.
Hibdon Hardwood in St. Louis currently employs four full-time and two part-time employees. They’re spending their last few months in business selling off inventory and machinery.
Eventually, Hibdon had to start letting go of the business that he’s run for 45 years. All together, the financial loss from the seized containers amounted to over $1.4 million. It was too much to recover from.
“We still hope that it’ll be released, that we’ll get a phone call that it’ll be out on the next vessel,” Fox says. “At some point, you realize that may not happen.”
Hibdon and Fox say they’re negotiating with Guatemala to make instrument parts there so the business can carry on for their employees, customers and suppliers. But in whatever way Hibdon Hardwood continues, it will be without Hibdon and Fox.
“We’re not really sure what our plans will be,” Hibdon says. “We may find a way to stay in the industry in some way.”
“But currently, we are basically just in limbo waiting,” Fox adds. “We don’t know if the wait will be fruitful or depressing.”
Source : Riverfronttimes