A new Canadian company is expected to employ up to 250 people when it acquires the H.J. Heinz Company’s Leamington plant, if a signed letter of intent turns into an official agreement.
Highbury Canco Corporation, formed by four major shareholders, was created specifically with an interest in Heinz, according to company spokesperson Prajeed Sood.
“All I can tell you is that all of them are very successful business people in their own rights,” said Sood, who is based in Toronto. “They come from logistics, from manufacturing, from food, so it’s a pretty solid group for this project.”
Heinz announced in November it would be closing the plant by June, which would have left 740 full-time employees out of work. Sood said he hopes the agreement is finalized within 60 days.
Sood confirmed tomato juice would be one of the products manufactured, but there is a long list of other products they plan to produce. According to the Canadian Agricultural Products Act, tomato juice products sold in Canada must be made from whole tomatoes and Leamington was the last Heinz plan process whole tomatoes.
Leamington Mayor John Paterson noted during a press conference this morning that the letter of intent is not a guarantee because it is not legally-binding.
“But I think it really tells you that Heinz still wants to work in our municipality, that our municipality, that our province, that our area really wants this protection to go ahead and we’ll all keep our noses to the grindstone to see that it happens,” said Paterson.
The agreement would lead to a July transition in which Highbury would start manufacturing, co-packing and distributing certain products, according to a Highbury news release. The company also plans to hire additional seasonal employees and eventually make investments into the plant, the release said.
“A testament to the hard-working town of Leamington, Heinz received many expressions of interest in the facility, and we are pleased we were able to identify a strong new partner for the community and for Heinz,” said Michael Mullen, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs at Heinz in a release from the company.
Windsor West MPP Teresa Piruzza said several potential investors, including Highbury, had contacted her office, which in turn connected them with Heinz. She said there’s a potential for government investment once a final agreement between Heinz and Highbury is reached.
“We’re now looking at the potential of new investment in the plant, of being able to maintain some of that employment in there, of being able to continue to work with the growers in that area as well,” said Piruzza. “I certainly think that this is a positive and exciting move.”
Piruzza said the Ontario government’s $3 million funds for a new tomato facility for Thomas Canning Ltd. shows there is a market for investing in food and agriculture in the region.
The leader of the local union that has long represented the employees at the Leamington facility also welcomed today's announcement. Rob Crawford, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 459, said the agreement would be a good start and he hopes it will lead to steady growth.
“We’re going to try to negotiate a fair collective agreement,” said Crawford. “They’re on the same page as us as far as good union jobs. They want to make sure there’s a pension there ... they’re on board with good benefits and those are two important factors.”
Sood said the company intends on “putting all of the missing pieces together,” which includes the negotiations with UFCW.
Sandra Pupatello, CEO of the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation, said the group had been working with Highbury for several weeks, but now the agreement is out of their hands.
“This is a Heinz decision,” said Pupatello. “This is a decision between this business person and this one and we can’t get in the middle of it and make them do anything they don’t want they do.”