Industry Nostalgia High as Quebecor World Announces Plant Closings
Manufacturing plant closings aren’t exactly unheard of in this industry, and never is the news of a plant closing received without some pangs of distress for the employees, their families, the local communities, and even the company’s corporate officers who are forced to make such difficult decisions and handle the ensuing layoffs. But some plant closing announcements seem to hit the industry a little harder than others. The recent announcement by Quebecor World that it will close its Kingsport, Tenn., book manufacturing facility is one example.
“Anyone in book publishing … probably knows the name Kingsport,” says Martin Maloney, chairman of the public relations firm Broadford & Maloney, who used to work for the Kingsport facility when it merged with a company called Arcata National Corp., in the late 1960s and 1970s. “It was known as the place to have your books printed.”
Quebecor announced the closing—and the closing of its Brookfield, Wis., magazine manufacturing facility—on April 11, as part of a reorganization of its U.S. book and magazine platforms involving the investment in new state-of-the-art equipment and the decommissioning or relocation of certain existing assets. The announcement came five days after Quebecor World had announced the appointment of its new president and CEO, Wes Lucas.
The closings, expected to be completed by the third quarter of this year, will affect an estimated 735 employee positions—425 in Kingsport and 310 in Brookfield.
The announcement to close the Kingsport plant is a historic event in the industry for some. “Generations of book production people and manufacturing reps were trained by The Kingsport Press ...” says Eugene Schwartz, editor-at-large of ForeWord Magazine for independent publishers, referring to the Kingsport facility’s roots as the Kingsport Press, founded in 1922. “And like all of the book manufacturers of their era half a century ago, what we now know as the book business was built on and rested on the hardware and resources of its manufacturing back room,” says Schwartz, a 50-plus-year veteran of the book publishing industry, who has held positions as a production and manufacturing manager at the likes of Monarch Press, Random House, CRM/Psychology Today and Goodyear/Prentice Hall.
“Companies such as Kingsport, Riverside Press, American Book-Stratford Press, Colonial Press, The Haddon Craftsmen, RR Donnelley, H. Wolf Book Manufacturing Co., etc., with their huge floors of presses and stacks of paper, provided the credit as well as the delivery that got many a publisher through their season, as well as through World War II,” he says.
During World War II, the president of the Kingsport Press was the deputy director of the War Production Board’s Printing and Publishing Division, “which produced such materials as Bibles and equipment instruction manuals for U.S. troops,” according to an entry in the “Tennessee Encyclopedia.”
The encyclopedia also noted that the site was home to one of the longest strikes in America’s history; it lasted almost four full years and saw picket lines “accompanied by vandalism and violence.” In fact, there was a book written about the strike, says Maloney. “Just about everybody I worked for was named in the book,” he adds.
Bill Ralph, publishing sales specialist with Malloy Inc., was a longtime publishing client of Kingsport. “Prior to joining my present employer, I worked for a California-based college textbook publisher for a little more than 30 years. Mac Booher was one of the first book printing salespeople representing an Eastern manufacturer, Kingsport Press, to call on the new and growing California publishing industry, and one of the first to establish a sales office in the region. We worked with Mac, and later with Bill Ketron, Paul Walker and Paul Stanley in the ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s,” he explains.
“During this period, the industry, and our companies, evolved—[our companies] were bought, sold and merged, as they continue to do today. The loss of Kingsport Press is a natural evolution of a business that is very sad. However, I understand how it’s sometimes important for corporations to make difficult and important financial decisions,” says Ralph. “It’s my hope that all the thousands of people who were at Kingsport Press throughout the years aren’t forgotten. These are the people who set the modern standard for service, quality and innovation in our industry.”
Quebecor World, which today employs around 31,000, took over the one-million-square-foot facility about 16 years ago, when it acquired Arcata.
In an article in the Kingsport Times-News, the city’s mayor, Dennis Phillips, was quoted as saying, “During the past several months, we have been in contact with officials from Quebecor who advised us that the decision to close the Kingsport plant was made some two years ago. While we had hoped this decision could be reversed, today’s announcement would indicate that was not to be.”
Tony Ross, Quebecor’s director of communications, however, says, “The decision to close the Kingsport facility was made very recently, and once the decision was made it was communicated to our employees, customers and the appropriate authorities as quickly as possible.”
The Times-News article also quoted Sam McGee of Kingsport, a 59-year-old book binder with 37 years at the plant. “I can’t say anything bad about the company,” he said. “There’s been a lot of families raised from this plant.”
There also have been a lot of books manufactured at the facility. “I think the capacity was over 100 million books a year,” says Maloney. He notes that the plant was once the country’s largest manufacturer of Bibles, and leather covers were even hand-bound. “So there was a lot of craftsmanship in the history of Kingsport, as well,” he adds.
Less than two years ago, the company laid off about half of its Kingsport employees, around 450 people, and the year prior to that it laid off some 200 others.
Maloney suggests the plant’s closing is not an indication of declining business. “The work is not going away, it’s just going to different facilities,” he says.
Instead, he suspects that the facility’s age and constant evolution may have been a factor. “The plant was small, and it was constantly being expanded. So probably from a workflow standpoint, it wasn’t the most efficient facility. And obviously it was very old,” he says. “So I can see from a business point of view that this probably is for the good of everyone. Books need to be printed in the most efficient and well-laid-out facilities.”
Howard Goldstein, vice president for strategic sourcing at Houghton Mifflin, says, “[It’s] interesting to note that Kingsport was a leader in composition before the strike and then it went to zero. Its sister plant was the Hawkins County facility, which was closed in 2001 by Quebecor. Quebecor moved most of those presses and some equipment to Kingsport, which only made the workflow worse.”
According to Ross, “The decision to close the Kingsport facility was based on many factors including the changing needs of the publishing industry. The company’s U.S. book facilities will become more focused on specializing in specific product lines which, when combined with new equipment, will improve efficiencies and deliver better service to our customers,” he says.
Quebecor reports that the closings will involve restructuring charges of approximately $30 million.
Maloney also speculates that many Kingsport employees could find work in Quebecor’s other Tennessee facilities.
According to Ross, “The employees at both Kingsport and Brookfield are being provided with outplacement services to help them secure new employment, and this includes opportunities at other Quebecor World facilities.”
“Quebecor World has a history of good times and bad times. I guess they’re having challenging times now, but I think they’ll work through them,” says Maloney.
Several people commented that they have high hopes for the new president/CEO Wes Lucas to help steer the company in a positive direction.
Maloney adds, “As much as its hurts some people, [the closing of Kingsport] is probably something that needed to be done.”