Unwelcome stillness settles on sawmill

Long-time worker Morva Kennedy and site manager Stephen Gray inspect the strangely quiet Blue...
Long-time worker Morva Kennedy and site manager Stephen Gray inspect the strangely quiet Blue Mountain lumber mill site yesterday. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
The silence was deafening at Blue Mountain Lumber yesterday as West Otago's biggest employer officially started shutting its operations.

Just a handful of staff remain at the Conical Hill sawmill after the most turbulent week in its long history in the area.

Machinery sits idle and there is nearly no-one around.

What was a hive of activity just days ago resembles the beginnings of a ghost town.

Winstone Pulp International, which owns the sawmill, told its 45 staff there on Wednesday the mill would shut almost immediately.

A skeleton crew of about 12, including several long-serving staff, have the job of cleaning up, dismantling equipment, processing final orders and closing the door behind them.

Site manager Stephen Gray has worked at Blue Mountain Lumber for 25 years.

He likens the closure to a death in the family.

"It has just been a devastating week," he said from his office.

He tries to focus on the good times he and the rest of "the family" have enjoyed over the years, but it is impossible when he looks around and sees no activity, hears no noise.

Restructuring at the sawmill was nothing new.

From a peak of 210 staff six years ago, the workforce was virtually halved then cut to 45 last March.

That group lost their jobs this week.

Mr Gray said it was disappointing because the last 45 had invested their time and effort into trying to turn the company's fortunes around.

"We have all committed so much since March . . . that highlights the spirit here but it is disappointing when I know the effort that went in here. We were doing the right things and I'm very proud of everyone."

Tapanui and Gore communities would suffer, although the impact would not be as severe as it would have been had the company shut the doors with 201 staff on its books.

His views were echoed by Morva Kennedy, a 21-year company veteran.

She was "floored" when told the bad news this week.

What made it harder to accept was knowing how much the remaining staff had put into the company.

"Everyone here bust a gut and took ownership of the situation here and I honestly thought things were turning around, but it was not to be."

She, like Mr Gray, is one of just a small group left to tidy up before the doors close for good, expected to be in the next four to six weeks.

While there had been tears and sorrow in recent days, Mrs Kennedy said she wanted to remember the good times at the mill.

Like at least 45 others, she faces an uncertain future but is not quite ready to call it quits yet.

"I'm going to get my butt out there and look for work. I'm not ready to be home 24 hours a day."


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