H.J Heinz Co. will cease to operate its Leamington plant after today. Geoff Robins/Canadian Press
H.J. Heinz Co. will cease to operate its Leamington, Ont., plant on Friday, putting hundreds of people out of work and ending the partnership that has lasted more than a century between the company and community.
Before the Great Depression, before colour photos or the world wars, there was the H.J. Heinz Co. in Leamington.
The ketchup giant opened its first Canadian plant there in 1909.
H.J. Heinz senior vice-president of corporate and government affairs Michael Mullen said production "winds down" Friday.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union told CBC News that production on Friday is unlikely, even though Heinz is still technically paying the employees until end of the day.
Billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and its partner 3G Capital paid $23.3 billion US to buy Heinz in 2013.
Months after the deal, Heinz announced a global restructuring and multiple plant closures, including the Leamington facility, southeast of Windsor.
Nearly 1,000 people in Leamington were affected.
"It’s really a question of having an unprofitable plant and concentrating production in a more profitable plant. You see that in the auto industry," Buffett said at an appearance in Detroit in November 2013.
Dennis Jackson has worked for Heinz for nearly 50 years. He was a thermo-process specialist and later ran the gift shop in Leamington.
"When we first started at Heinz we knew back then it was just if you get in there good and you do your job right, you're going to be there forever," Jackson said. "It's part of me, because I don't know what I would have done with my life if I would have taken any other career.
"Next to my family, it's the most important thing in my life."
Andy Slavik worked in the maintenance department at Heinz for 12 years.
His mother worked in the canteen and his son and daughter both worked as seasonal employees.
"There are people all over the place, Essex and Kent County, with ties to this place," he said.
'Never thought we'd be closing'
Slavik was shocked when Heinz announced it would close its Leamington plant.
"Heinz has been here for over 100 years. I don't know if I expected it to be another 100 years, but it's a sad day, sad day," he said. "We never thought we'd be one of those four plants closing."
Heinz wove itself into the community. It was the official sponsor of the annual Tomato Fest and several business awards.
"The company itself had such a strong relationship with Leamington council and the sports groups," said Scott Holland, an unofficial historian for the town. "They donated land for the Kinsman's Complex, which is a recreation centre and a double pad arena. They donated land for the Leamington minor ball diamonds. They've done a lot for the community."
"Heinz is proud to have been part of the Leamington community for over 100 years," Mullen wrote in an email to CBC Windsor.
In January, H.J. Heinz Co. and the United Commercial Food Workers Union reached a closure agreement with the union.
Unionized employees who will be out of work will get two weeks' pay for every year worked, a $2,500 productivity bonus and 52 weeks of health-care benefits.
Buffett called it "a very generous severance package."
Heinz also paid 43 farmers affected by the closure a combined $1.8 million earlier this year.
Tomato farmer Tom Keller is president of Triple K Farms.
His dad got a tomato contract with Heinz in the mid-1960s. Tom and his two brothers continued growing until last year.
"It's kind of been the crop that has paid the bills and made it worthwhile for more than just my dad to be in the business. It allowed my brothers and myself to get into the business and I hoped it was the crop that was the one to grow for us," he said.
Twenty per cent of his fields grew tomatoes, but those tomatoes accounted for 50 per cent of the farm's income.
Close to 40 per cent of all field tomatoes grown in Ontario were shipped to Leamington in any given year. On average, Heinz would use 225,000 tons of tomatoes annually, at $93 to $95 a ton.
More than ketchup
Heinz may be best known for its signature ketchup, but over the years the company has made hundreds of products in Leamington.
Products ranged from sandwich spread to tartar sauce and turtle soup to famous baked beans, which fed the Canadian military during the First World War.
Holland, the author of A Century in the Making: History of Heinz Canada 1909-2009, noted Heinz's importance to soldiers serving overseas.
"There was one story, a soldier, a young soldier, was serving across the seas in 1917 and they had received a shipment of Heinz beans," Holland said. "He wrote back on the back of the Heinz beans label how much the troops enjoyed just receiving those products."
Twenty years ago, Heinz threatened to lay off 450 of its Leamington employees. The union had voted to strike. Heinz had 450 pink slips at the negotiating table. Two minutes before midnight, an agreement was struck.
"I really think that the first inkling of [Heinz Leamington] not doing so well was back in 1994," Holland said. "The union was playing hardball with the company and the company was playing hardball with the union ... and the union just caved in."
Things were looking up in 2001 when the company introduced a new production line.
By 2009 production slowed. Thirty per cent of production was cut and U.S. plants were picking up the work.
On Nov. 14, 2013, Heinz announced it would close the Leamington plant for good.
"I did get called that night ... and I really couldn't even talk, just like when you lose family or something," Jackson said. "I just had a big lump in my tummy, like I'm starting to feel right now thinking about it.
"I went in the room with everybody else, 200 people, managers and non-union, and the fella that told us was crying too.
"It just hurt me very deeply because it's part of my life. The best thing I have is Heinz."
The Heinz operation was one of the biggest taxpayers and water users in Leamington.
Leamington Mayor John Paterson said council has already started planning for less revenue.
Heinz, Highbury Canco reach deal
Not all is lost in Leamington, though.
A new Ontario business consortium, Highbury Canco, has signed a contract to package some products, including tomato juice, for Heinz.
"It's not as bleak as everybody suspects it's going to be," Slavick said. "Fortunately, the new Highbury Canco company that's moving in, they've got a one-year lease on the plant and they're going to hire some people."
It won't replace the 1,000 full- and part-time jobs Heinz provided, but Highbury Canco has already starting hiring some of the 250 employees for the operation.
The company has also secured contracts with 10 tomato farmers.
Highbury director Pradeep Sood, a Toronto businessman, has a vision for the plant. He wants to add lines and his company's own product, which wouldn't compete with Heinz.
"We're hoping next year we'll add some new machinery. We've already got some, which we will be installing. So we're hoping that in 2015 we'll be able to add more people," he said.
Paterson said the Town of Leamington helped expedite the sale by getting the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) to speed up the assessment of the plant.
"MPAC got an immediate evaluation rather than wait for the appeal process," Paterson said.
The mayor said MPAC decreased the property value from "over $20 million to under $10 million."
"It was a substantial decrease. It’s going to alter the way we do things, for sure," Paterson said. "We knew ahead of budget time what the reduced value would be, approximately."
Heinz is happy with the deal.
“We are extremely pleased that we were able to find a new company in Highbury Canco to take over the facility," Mullen wrote, "and know they will find Leamington an excellent place to grow their business for many years to come.”
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