ST. LOUIS - Furniture Brands International (FBI) is consolidating with Montana-based Watkins Shepard Trucking in an attempt to be more economical and efficient with its shipping operations, according to the company.

FBI made the announcement, which affects the private fleets and drivers for Broyhill Furniture Industries and Henredon Furniture, last week, meeting with employees who also received a memo from the company that outlined the changes. In the memo from FBI Director of Logistics Davy Whittington, employees were told the changes take effect at the end of October.

FBI will discontinue the pre-paid freight program established with outside carriers Oct. 31. Fleet operations based in North Carolina have been outsourced effective Oct. 30, which will result in the permanent layoff of all Furniture Brands associates.

The new dedicated fleet operation with Watkins Shepard Trucking will start Nov. 2. Watkins Shepard, headquartered in Missoula, Mont., will handle all of FBI's prepaid shipments originating from North Carolina through its terminal in nearby Conover.

John Hastings, vice president of communications for St. Louis, Mo.-based Furniture Brands, said the move should allow for more efficient handling of the company's freight.

"We're outsourcing our freight and fleet operations to a third party that will handle that for us and allow us to be more efficient," Hastings explained. "We have a lot of capital tied up in trucks, and we're not hauling full loads. (Watkins Shepard) has more vacancies than we have people being terminated."

Hastings added that the decision to outsource the shipping aspect of FBI's local operations puts drivers with trucking companies, allowing drivers to "be connected with a trucking company, not a furniture company."

Whittington said the company is viewing the move as a win-win situation for all involved. "It has been a strain to keep our trucks running. We did not have the internal resources to move our freight on our own trucks, but Watkins Shepard has a system to handle that freight for us. This allows us to get all our freight with one provider with dedicated service.

Watkins Shepard has 19 terminals located across the United States with a fleet of 650 tractors and 2,000 trailers, and it has approximately 900 employees, said Whittington.