October 21, 2011


Maple Leaf Foods closes Kitchener Schneider's plant



Schneider Foods, a manufacturing plant under Maple Leaf Foods, is closing and will affect 1,200 local jobs.


Workers at the sprawling Courtland Avenue meat processing plant learned Wednesday (Oct 19) their employment will end by late 2014. It is a deep blow to both city's struggling manufacturing base and a landmark company that was part of the very economic fabric of Kitchener, with local roots going back to 1890.


Maple Leaf will also close plants in Hamilton, Toronto, Moncton, Winnipeg and North Battleford, Sask., by the end of 2014, as part of a CAD560-million (US$552 million) plan to modernise production in its prepared meats business.


Maple Leaf's Kitchener distribution centre is expected to close a year earlier than the processing plant, in 2013. Distribution centres in Moncton, Burlington and Coquitlam, B.C. will also be closed, with a new centre to be built to serve eastern Canada.


It will be located at a yet-to-be determined site in southern Ontario.


The closings will not affect its poultry processing facilities in Ayr and New Hamburg, or a Maple Leaf plant in Guelph.


At the same time, Maple Leaf is also expanding. It will build a new CAD395 million (US$389 million) facility in Hamilton. The company is also investing in existing plants in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Brampton.


The restructuring will create 1,150 new jobs, but the plant closings will more than offset that, resulting in a net loss of 1,550 positions from among its 21,000 employees, Maple Leaf said.


The most staggering impact of the Maple Leaf restructuring is clearly in Kitchener, the city where the Schneider meat empire began. Today, workers here still make deli meats, wieners and other foodstuff that are sold across the country.


During a news conference at the plant, Maple Leaf's chief strategy officer, Doug Dodds, called Kitchener the birthplace of one of the most respected and iconic brands we have in Canada.


Dodds' association with Schneider Foods has spanned more than 35 years in a number of roles including president and chief executive officer.


Dodds said the company remains deeply committed to the Schneider brand. But the Kitchener plant originally built in 1920 and upgraded and expanded several times since has outlived its usefulness.


Following an extensive review of a number of communities, Dodds said a number of factors led to choosing Hamilton as the site of the new facility, including the right land configuration, proximity to 400-series highways and familiarity with the city. Maple Leaf will focus on assisting its employees during the transition, Dodds said. "We will treat them fairly and respectfully as we move forward."


Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr said the Schneider's plant had been a backbone of the local economy and the city had been working with Maple Leaf to build a new plant locally, hopes that were dashed with Wednesday's announcement.


Dennis Lesperance, president of the plant's employee association, said he would work with the company in the coming months to determine details around severance and pensions. Many of the workers there, like their parents, started at the plant right after high school.


He said it was an extremely sad day for the employees of the Courtland plant and the people of Kitchener and that Maple Leaf was ending more than a century of tradition.


The Toronto-based maker of processed meats and other foods said the changes are expected to improve its competitiveness and profitability in the near and longer terms.


Michael McCain, Maple Leaf Food's chief executive officer, said the changes are bittersweet. They represent the biggest investment in food processing in Canadian history, he said but necessary so the company can compete with larger and more efficient US meat processors that are gaining market share in Canada.


He also acknowledged that the cuts would be felt most deeply in Kitchener, but said the company would work with the city to find a new purpose for the 10-hectare plant and give workers time to find new jobs.

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