It was a reunion and a funeral and a celebration rolled into a social networking soiree on Tuesday, as hundreds of workers laid off last week from payday entrepreneur Carey V. Brown's Chattanooga companies came to Enzo's Market for one last beer together.
They weren't alone. Dozens of recruiters for local tech firms armed with stacks of business cards saddled up to the Southside grocery store hoping to fill positions in their growing Scenic City businesses.
Some wore two name tags: one with their name, another with the positions they were looking to fill. When business owners heard that there were this many developers, designers and marketers with enviable resumes standing around in one place, they couldn't stay away.
"This is job fair 2.0," said Brian Lutz, marketing services manager at CBL & Associates. "I talked to three different people that already had offers."
In fact, many recruiters eager for tech talent didn't even wait for Brown's businesses to fold.
"I was getting calls from recruiters on Thursday before we even had the notification that we were going to close," said former employee Joshua Smith. "At least we've got some good leads."
Brown was forced to close down most of his online payday lending businesses after a New York regulator in early August convinced banks to stop allowing what he termed "illegal" payday loans to flow through the nationwide automated clearing house network. Brown's payday loans carried interest rates in excess of what New York allows, but no state has ever taken its case directly to the banks in charge of running the ACH network.
On Tuesday, most workers were putting Brown's legally-shaky business model behind them, and are looking ahead, they say. They may not have much of a choice in the matter.
Most didn't receive severance, and many have mortgages to pay. Some have children in school. So with little else to do but to find another gig, they dressed up in their uniform of choice -- be it a suit and tie or jeans and a t-shirt -- and took a stack of resumes down to Enzo's.
Some of them were shy at first. Brown was well-known among former and current employees for his non-disclosure and non-compete agreements, and some workers weren't sure they could even discuss their former employer with their next employer -- or each other.
"Some of the people are still afraid to talk to each other," said Strat Parrott, head of The Juncture, who was looking to hire two workers.
But tongues started to loosen the longer the taps stayed open at Enzo's, and before long workers were hugging each other and reminiscing of old times, when they weren't being courted by potential employers.
"I actually hired someone immediately," said Jason Hill, who runs Papercut Interactive with his wife, Jenny Hill.
Greg Bloh, president of TransCard, said he was hoping to hire about 70 workers at his growing Chattanooga firm, which works with prepaid debit cards. It's a line of work that won't be foreign to the former employees of Cloudswell, Bloh said.
"While this is a sad situation for these people, this could be a boon for Chattanooga," said Bloh, who setting up another hiring event for this afternoon.
Not everyone got a job right away. Some won't get another job in Chattanooga, suspects Larry McNabb, who works at Staffing Technologies. He had 25 resumes by 7 p.m., and he suspects there are another 75 engineers out there looking for work who once got a paycheck from the payday business.
"It's sad, but I'm not sure that we can absorb that many here in Chattanooga," McNabb said.
Some ex-workers are already planning for the worst. One single mother will soon move back in with her parents. A web developer is thinking of striking out on his own with a couple of buddies. Another worker isn't sure if he wants to keep working in the payday loan industry or try something else.
Just in case he's still on the fence, a handful of recruiters from Cleveland, Tenn.-based Check into Cash showed up with a cardboard sign that read, "Looking for .NET Developers!"
Asked after about an hour if he had signed up anyone, Dominique Stallings, a senior .Net consultant at Check Into Cash, said no one seemed eager to jump back into the fray.
"But man, I'm looking," said Stallings.
Contact Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 757-6315.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...