Novartis factory up for sale in Grimsby as MP holds talks with owners about fate of staff

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 26 Sep 2018

The plan to save 400 jobs at Novartis is underway after an emergency meeting was held at the Labour Party conference.

Novartis staff were shocked to find out yesterday that the global drugs manufacturer plans to close the Grimsby plant within the next two years, with at least 395 jobs at risk of being axed.

After hearing the news, Grimsby MP Melanie Onn hastily arranged a meeting with Novartis chiefs in Liverpool, where Labour has gathered for its autumn conference, to discuss the decision to close the drug manufacturing plant in the town.

Speaking to Grimsby Live afterwards, Ms Onn said she used the meeting to ask the company whether the factory could be upgraded in an attempt to save jobs.

She has also put a cross-party plan in motion to begin the hunt for a new manufacturer to come in and keep the factory running.

It came as the UK head of Swiss-owned Novartis indicated the plant was profitable and it was actively looking for a buyer to take on either the whole manufacturing facility or areas of the vast site, which covers more than 200-acres to the west of Grimsby.

Novartis workers are learning of the company's intention to close the Grimsby plant (Image: Jon Corken)

Ms Onn, Labour’s shadow housing minister, is coordinating a letter to the Department for International Trade, asking the Whitehall department to assist with the search for a new operator.

Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, and Nic Dakin, Labour MP for Scunthorpe, are both on-board, with Brigg MP Andrew Percy also due to be approached about joining the campaign.

Read more: Novartis boss reveals what might happen next at its Grimsby site

Ms Onn said: “I’m writing a letter to UKTI [now the Department for International Trade] that all of us in northern Lincolnshire will sign to ask them to step up their outreach work for potential new companies to take it over.

“I don’t want to give anyone any false hope that that is a possibility but I think it is important that we do keep the factory in the town because they are high quality jobs and the type of jobs that I always say we need more of in the town.

“If there are organisations out there then, absolutely, it has to be something where we make sure they do everything they can.”

Great Grimsby MP Melanie Onn is asking the government to assist in finding a company to take over the Novartis factory

Novartis broke the news to staff on Tuesday morning that it was planning to close the Moody Lane plant, situated on the banks of the Humber, by 2020. It is part of a global restructuring with 1,700 jobs also going in Switzerland.

The company told Ms Onn that it will look to provide relocation opportunities where possible.

Meanwhile, Haseeb Ahmad, managing director of Novartis UK and Ireland, confirmed it would actively look for a new buyer for the site.

While there is no buyer confirmed yet, there has been some “early stage interest”, he said.

The site will continue to operate until 2020, but in the meantime Mr Ahmad said the firm would be working with government and other routes to secure a sale.

He said the site was marketable, adding: “We have, and this is recognised throughout the manufacturing community, a very effective site when it comes to producing these types of smaller molecules.

Haseeb Ahmad, managing director for Novartis UK & Ireland

“This is a highly effective site for this kind of medicines with strong capabilities, a very dedicated staff.

“If we’re not able to find a buyer by the end of 2020, Novartis will be exiting but until then we will continue to operate the site.”

Deals could be constructed in “all sorts of ways”, Mr Ahmad said, but it is envisaged that any sale would take time to become reality.

Ms Onn praised Novartis for being “proactive” since the announcement but raised concern at the impact such a top-down decision has had on the Grimsby community.

Novartis has operated its facility in Grimsby for 67 years and had been regarded as one of the town’s most stable employers. The company has almost 70 plants worldwide, manufacturing drugs used across the health industry for treating conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

Yet the release of its patent on drugs being produced in Grimsby meant that it was no longer able to make a profit, despite the large volume of pills it was producing, they told Ms Onn.

Ms Onn added: “It shows you how delicate global corporates are within communities. Novartis say, ‘This is a global decision, we’ve previously had the US and Japan that have downsized and now we have three sites in Switzerland partially closing and Grimsby closing’.

Novartis employs 400 staff at its site in Moody Lane in Grimsby (Image: Grimsby Live)

“But the thing is, I said to them, ‘The thing is that this global decision that has been made has a real impact on people’s lives at the bottom end of it’. That is quite a scary prospect, to think about how quickly that can be taken away.”

Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said the Conservative government had failed to safeguard manufacturing jobs.

She said the news about the Novartis closure was “not good” for the region and its economy.

“We’ve had an economy for about 30 years that has predominately favoured one sector, the finance sector, at the detriment of all other sectors,” said the shadow cabinet member.

“In the government’s industrial strategy, there was very little mention of other sectors and ones that might be struggling and about the plans that might need to be put in place.

“The economy and the industrial strategy are there to improve people’s quality of life. And if it is not improving people’s quality of life and people are losing their jobs, then the government must intervene.”

The true impact of Novartis: 'I have my family, house and mortgage. With four children it is going to be tough'

Novartis workers arriving at the Grimsby site as it is announced the company has proposed its closure (Image: Jon Corken)

For a moment we thought Grimsby might escape Novartis' restructure.

Rumours from Switzerland, where the company is headquartered, had rumbled throughout Monday night and that country looked likely to bear the brunt of the pain.

But at 6.45am came the hammer blow. Yesterday would prove to be unlike any other shift for workers here too.

Staff meetings had been hastily scheduled at sites across Europe. In Grimsby, overnight workers would be the first to hear.

Read more: Novartis set to CLOSE Grimsby operations with the loss of 400 jobs

As the clock struck 8.30am, news of the plant's complete closure was released to the world as shocked workers emerged from the plant - just half an hour before the second group were due to arrive to be told.

A statement from Novartis bosses would be a while yet, but there was nothing more official than the mixture of emotions on display at the gates.

Some were in denial: "It's all circumstantial until we are all officially told," said one arriving for the second staff meeting.

Others were not surprised: "They have been running down some of the plant for a few days. We kind of knew what to expect."

Workers leaving the Novartis factory in Grimsby after the shock announcement (Image: Jon Corken)

You might think two years' notice would manage the blow. But tears were on one female worker's face and her colleague was unable to speak as she left the meeting with management.

Shock was written on many other faces as they wrestled with the ultimatum laid out just moments earlier.

This is the harsh reality and painful aftermath of mass redundancy - although there is a glimmer of hope that the site could be bought and maintained.

Amid the crowds, many were simply wondering why? Last year Novartis' profit was $8.6 billion - and rising every year.

It reaches 927 million patients and sells products in 155 countries. It has existed for 150 years and all signs suggest a strong future yet.

The Grimsby plant is just one very small cog in this huge corporation's production network stretching across the globe - and its 395 workers represent just a fraction of its total 127,000-strong workforce.

Internal finances are not responsible. Brexit is apparently not to blame. The real reasoning would come in a radio interview with UK managing director Haseeb Ahmad.

Changing trends in the healthcare industry mean Novartis is now engaged in a boardroom quest for corporate evolution.

Those drugs produced in Grimsby - for hypertension, heart failure and breast cancer - are out of step with demand. This is expected to dip and manufacturing levels decline.

It may be one factory, in one town, in one country. But at the well-landscaped entrance to the factory on Moody Lane you couldn't hide the depth of dejection.

Some long-serving staff relished the prospect of “enhanced redundancy packages” as they neared the end of their working lives. But even this was tinged with natural upset.

Everyone at the gates shared in a united grief at the massive jobs blow for Grimsby and the impact on the younger generation of workers.

The Novartis plant which is now due to close by the end of 2020 (Image: Grimsby Live)

Two of those took to Facebook, the teens' exchange charting how initial elation at securing a job only a few months before had now been dashed.

Staff have been reassured there will be two years’ concentrated search for a buyer for the factory. Its boss insists the factory is "highly effective... with strong capabilities".

But most staff are resigned to the fact the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry faces challenges - and there were personal challenges ahead too.

Steven Fleming, 38, said: “I am going to have to think of my family, house, mortgage and with four children it is going to be tough.

"I have two years to find something else. But it is difficult to find anything like this elsewhere in the town."

He added: “I have been here seven years so have skills that could be used. But it is going to be difficult looking around as everyone else here is.”

At the gates, there were others who were more hopeful about the future and more upbeat about the chance to seek new careers.

September 25 2018 started no differently than any other working day. But it is a day these workers are unlikely to forget. The march towards closing day in 2020 starts now - unless a buyer can be found, and that has not been ruled out.

Today it is back to work for the 395. Let's hope this jobs disaster can be transformed into a bright new start - for the factory and its workers.

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