Closure of printing press marks end of era in Surrey

SURREY — On Saturday at about 3 o’clock in the morning the last newspaper will leave the press at Kennedy Heights printing plant, ending decades of production for Vancouver’s largest dailies.

As the towering presses come to a final halt and silence descends on the plant, 220 highly specialized employees will be forced to look for a new career. Pacific Newspaper Group (PNG), which owns the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers, announced in September 2013 it will outsource print production to Transcontinental Printing on Annacis Island in Delta.

Peter McQuade, who worked as a pressman from 1983 until he left to join Unifor in 2005, started at Kennedy Heights 18 years ago with 350 other employees.

"For the first year it was a bit of a struggle," recalls McQuade. "It was a new plant, there was some long days when we moved into that plant trying to get production going."

Kennedy Heights was a marriage of sorts for the production for the Sun and Province, which until that year had been operating out of plants on Granville Street in Vancouver and a site behind the Costco on King George Highway in Surrey, respectively.

Mike Bretner loads a roll of paper for the printing press at the Kennedy Heights plant in Surrey. (Photo: ADRIAN MACNAIR)

The Surrey "Flexo" plant, named after the flexography printing technology, is where many of the current employees moved from when it closed down.

Conrad Fischer, a pressman for 28 years, began his apprenticeship at the Granville plant in August 1986, before moving to Flexo.

"I remember going in on a Saturday, apprentices would start an hour early so we’d be there at 6 o’clock in the morning cleaning all the presses, greasing everything, getting all the buckets ready for solvent, spotting all the plates," says Fischer.

In those early years at Kennedy Heights the printing was around the clock and there was plenty of overtime available. The jobs were rock solid, too. Every four years the plant would take on 11 apprentices based on attrition rates, and those who did leave usually went into retirement.

"I remember the older guys saying to me, stick with this job, do well, and you’ve got got a job for life. A job for life."

It’s no exaggeration. The median age of employees at the plant is in the mid-fifties.

Bill Morgan, vice-president of manufacturing, started as production manager when the plant opened. He says he’s seen fourth generation pressmen come through Kennedy Heights, some whose grandfathers worked on the Province’s presses in 1914.

"Over the years there’s been probably a couple of thousand pressmen and mailers that have gone through Pacific Newspaper Group," recalls Morgan. "So it’s a long line of trades that have come through the doors over the years."

Construction of the 220,000-square-foot Kennedy Heights plant on 5.5 hectares at 12091 88th Ave. nearly didn’t happen, according to Morgan. The original idea was to add on to the Flexo plant and shut down the Granville site, but the quality of the print reproduction for the flexographic technology couldn’t be recycled because they were using water-based ink.

At the time it opened in July 1997, the plant was the most technologically advanced printing press in the world. The four presses were designed and installed to produce double-wide, double-round broadsheets in extremely large volumes.

Morgan says the plant has produced a world record-setting 160-page newspaper in one pass off the press on many occasions.

"That’s like cutting a chunk of wood," he says, laughing.

Over the course of 18 years the presses have gone through 600,000 tones of newsprint, 750,000 rolls of newsprint – each roll is 13 kilometres in length – five million kilograms of black ink, three million kilograms of colour ink, and hundreds of thousands of press plates.

And despite the fact the plant is running with much of its original hardware and the same software, they have never missed a production run for any reason.

"Who’s running a Windows 3.1 anymore? That’s kind of the comparison," explains Morgan.

Over the years the plant has delayed production based on breaking news but Morgan recalls one time he got a chance to say the "famous words." The plant had been open for about a year when editorial called production to tell them Princess Diana had perished in a car accident.

The presses were just starting up when Morgan got the call to stop the line.

"I went out there and went, ‘stop the presses!’" he says with a chuckle.

At the time, circulation for the Vancouver Sun was 300,000. Today they print just 90,000 copies.

The decline in circulation has resulted in a reciprocal decline in advertising, which means editorial content is shrinking. Each year fewer readers are buying a physical copy of a newspaper and more are tuning in online to get their news.

"It’s not just the Internet. People’s reading habits have changed. People who didn’t grow up with newspapers, young people aren’t taking to newspapers like my generation."

Ian Shaw separates sections during a pre-print of the Vancouver Sun newspaper special drive section on Thursday (Jan. 29). (Photo: ADRIAN MACNAIR)

Although employees learned 15 months ago that PNG would be closing the plant Fischer says many workers haven’t faced the reality their jobs are coming to an end.

"It doesn’t seem real until the last few days or weeks or moments, right?"

The Langley resident is now faced with a challenging task of finding a new career. He says some of the younger guys have a chance to get into a new trade, while some of the older guys can go into retirement.

"But for the people kind of in my age – I’m going to be 53 this year – it’s kind of an awkward time because it’s really hard at 53 starting at the bottom and looking at different trades," says Fischer.

McQuade says the union put on a job fair to try and explore options for the employees but it can be tough to change after a lifetime in one career. One employee has been a pressman for 45 years. It’s the only life he’s ever known but there just aren’t any jobs left in print production.

"In the mailroom I think the junior guy in that department did 24 years service with the company," says McQuade.

Fischer worked with the union and PNG to settle on a severance package for the remaining employees, estimated to be about $17.5 million. It’s rumoured to be the same amount PNG recently sold the building for. The print assets will also be sold off in the coming months.

There were suggestions the National Post could have been printed at Kennedy heights to keep the plant open, but Fischer says there didn’t seem to be much interest from the owners in saving jobs.

"They’re really looking at digital and they’re looking at people like myself as a legacy cost, as they call it. We’re a liability, not an asset."

Morgan, who will also be out of a job when the plant closes, looks back on Kennedy Heights with a mixture of pride and sorrow.

"I’ve been in this trade personally for 35 years. It’s a sad day. There’s nothing to cheer about on Friday," he says, before thinking and then answering slowly, "Time does move on, and it’s unfortunate, but we live in a different age."

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Eternity Medical Equipment’s ECAN95 masks have received Health Canada approval and CSA certification. (Eternity Medical Equipment photo)
South Surrey N-95 equivalent manufacturer launches mask recycling program

Eternity Medical Equipment partners with Ontario-based LifeCycle Revive

Surrey Fire Service at a garage fire in the 14400-block of 82A Ave on March 22, 2021. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
‘Perfect storm’ of variants, increasing COVID cases are concerning for Surrey fire chief

Between police and fire, Larry Thomas said there are 8 confirmed cases, 18 others isolating

Surrey Fire Service is on scene of a fire in the 12300-block of 72A Avenue Saturday morning (April 10). (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey crews on scene of house fire

It happened in the 12300-block of 72A Avenue

Emergency crews on scene after a small plane crashed in a grassy area on the northeast side of Boundary Bay Airport Saturday morning (April 10). A freelancer said the plane caught fire and one person was transported to hospital by BC Emergency Health Services. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Small plane crashes at Delta’s Boundary Bay Airport

Plane appears to have suffered ‘significant’ damage, says freelancer

Signage on a South Surrey sidewalk reminds pedestrians to respect social-distancing guidelines. (Photo: Tracy Holmes)
Surrey records 4,400 COVID-19 cases in March

New cases almost doubled between February, March

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Most Read