- Last day for staff at Castlecliff factory
- Mars site sold to smallgoods producer
- New site owner plans to expand
- 'Good number' of staff have jobs to go to.
It was the end of an era for many local families and the Whanganui business community when Mars Petcare finished production at its Castlecliff factory on Friday.
After 27 years of petfood manufacturing in the city, the company is moving production of cat food pouches to a facility in Thailand. Mars says the move will save $15.8 million a year, with the Thailand factory having five times the capacity and able to supply the entire Asia Pacific region, and New Zealand.
Mars said in a statement this week it recognised the Whanganui team "for their outstanding commitment which has seen the site operate as a world-class manufacturing facility for 27 years".
"Mars Petcare has been part of the fabric of Whanganui since 1993 and although this is a difficult time, we are immensely proud of the contribution the site and our associates [Mars' name for employees] have made to the local manufacturing community and the enduring legacy they leave behind," Mars Petcare supply transformation lead Dan Pope said.
"Since announcing plans for closure in late 2019, Mars Petcare has worked closely with local stakeholders and employers to find the best outcomes for associates and Whanganui."
Many of the staff have worked at the factory for years - the average is 15 or 16 years.
Among the long-servers are health and safety manager Terri Coopland who has worked for the company for 33 years, 16 of them in New Zealand; training and supply co-ordinator Sue Austin who has been there for 21-and-a-half years; and plant manager Aaron Manville who started as a contractor in 2000 and has been employed as a staff member in various roles for 18 years.
Manville said he "couldn't be prouder of the associates and how they have presented themselves" over the past 12 months since the closure was announced.
"It hasn't been easy and it's been a hell of a year with everything that's gone on in the world - it's been tough for everybody," Manville said.
"But they've been fantastic all year."
Coopland said the team had "put in a huge effort" at work during the year but there had been other noticeable efforts.
"They've been looking after each other and supporting each other," she said.
"People you wouldn't expect to support each other have teamed up."
Austin said many of the staff had "grown up" at Mars, joining the company as teenagers, and generations of some families had worked there.
The long lead-in time for the plant's closure had given an opportunity for the company to provide training to assist people to find new jobs, Austin said.
That training, which included financial and time-off support, has covered a wide range - pretty much anything the staff wanted - from forklift driving to early childhood education, welding, dog grooming, computer skills, first aid and more.
Coopland said staff had always worked to New Zealand Standards but as part of the wind-up process they had received official verification of their training records, and their transferable skills to other roles had come to the fore.
Through a careers consultancy, staff had a CV tailored to their skills and had the opportunity to attend workshops in job search, budgeting and finance, using LinkedIn, planning for retirement and setting up a business, Coopland said.
Some of that assistance will continue online through to next year.
After the closure was announced, a number of local businesses had made contact to inquire about employing staff, Austin said.
"We've had really good feedback from businesses about our associates," she said.
A "good number" of the 140 staff already had jobs to go to or were going through job offers, Manville said. In some cases, they had received multiple offers.
"Some will retire, others are going to look after their grandkids," he said.
Only a few people plan to move out of Whanganui.
The company also brought in the Ministry of Social Development to talk with staff individually about jobs and other support available.
"Having that length of time has worked in our favour," Austin said.
"There's been time to upskill and support them."
A "huge amount of great people" have come and gone in all areas of the factory over the years, Manville said.
"At the end of the day, the important thing is the people. Yes, there are business priorities, but the principles behind it genuinely want to look after people."
Austin said it had been "a pretty special place to work".
"Mars looked after the associates and there was also the camaraderie on the shifts," she said.
"That's what I will miss - the people, fun and fabulous times we have had."
Manville said although many outside the company thought it was tough on staff to close the factory just before Christmas, most of the staff were happy to have time to relax with their families before starting on new paths next year.
"Of course, they have redundancy [payments] and we have had time to prepare," he said.
"I couldn't be prouder of our associates and the way they have carried themselves. They worked as a team and really looked after each other."
At the factory's final day on Friday, staff had a barbecue onsite. They were given gifts including a commemorative book of photographs taken over the years, an engraved glass bowl from Whanganui-based New Zealand Glassworks, a Christmas ham and Mars products, and a satchel containing their training documents.
The plant was established after American family-owned company Mars decided to set up in New Zealand. During a visit to Whanganui in the 1990s they discovered the Tenderkist site and plant, which manufactured Lucky Petfood, was suitable for their operation.
Mars bought the Tenderkist site in Castlecliff in 1993 and has expanded it over the years. In 2002 the company bought land for a site extension and in 2010 began a significant rebuild of the plant. It involved building the new plant over the existing factory then pulling down the old building from inside - which allowed the factory to keep operating during construction.
Lucky Petfood became Masterfoods in 2002 and the company changed its name to Mars Petcare NZ in 2008.
Starting out as a very manual process, it has since transformed with the use of robots for some tasks. In the mid-2000s there were about 70 people per shift; in recent times that number has dropped to 30, with increased efficiency.
Many community organisations will also feel the impact of the closure, losing Mars' support with sponsorship and fundraising efforts.
It has sponsored Life Education Trust for many years and will continue that sponsorship into next year.
The company has also been involved in community radio, Cooks Gardens, Whanganui Airport, Cemetery Circuit (which is still receiving sponsorship this year), Hospice Whanganui volunteers, sports clubs, school and preschool fundraisers, and dog and cat shows.
Smallgoods producer Farmland Foods, currently based in Bulls, has successfully tendered to buy the Mars site.
The locally-owned family business started out as a family butcher shop in 1964 and has been producing smallgoods for three generations. The directors and their families have lived in Whanganui since 1994 and are "passionate about the Whanganui region and supporting local manufacturing".
The production facility is currently based on the family's rural property near Bulls and Farmland Foods says increased demand for its products has resulted in steady growth for the company for several years.
"The purchase of the Mars facility is a natural progression for Farmlands," managing director Eddie Davis said.
"The addition of another site will add the capacity we need for growth and will future-proof our current business and operations supplying smallgoods, bacon and ham to supermarkets nationwide."
Farmland Foods plans to expand into the Bryce St facility over the coming months and is excited about the opportunities this provides for the local community. Farmland Foods employs around 120 staff and Davis said the company is "committed to growing this number as we continue to build our business in Whanganui".
"In addition to future employment opportunities, the site conversion to a food manufacturing facility will support Whanganui businesses through the plant commissioning process. We are proud to be in a position to continue strengthening employment and growth in the region."
Mars worked with Bayleys Real Estate to ensure the sales process was robust and provided the best outcome for all parties and Whanganui's economic growth, Farmland Foods said.