Plug pulled on soap plant

Soap for stars: Workers hand-pack Lux toilet soap.
Soap for stars: Workers hand-pack Lux toilet soap.

Unilever Australasia chairman Clive Stiff announced in December that the company's Petone detergent factory would close by the end of 2015, with the loss of 58 jobs. Unilever has manufactured soap and detergent products in Petone since 1919 and hundreds of careers have begun there. By Jim Chipp.

For almost a century two institutions provided the book-ends of the Petone community.

At the west end of The Esplanade and Jackson Sts stood the Gear Meat Company freezing works and at the east end, Unilever's soap and detergent factory.

Gear closed in the early eighties and Unilever plans to close down by the end of next year, leaving British and American Tobacco the only large-scale manufacturer in Petone.

At first Lever Brothers, as the company was known then, made candles from Gear Meat's surplus tallow but in 1919 it bought 10 acres of land and began producing Sunlight and Lifebuoy soaps, and Rinso soap powder. Twenty years later a soap powder drier was built and the company began to refine glycerine, a soap by-product which is used in the pharmaceutical and food industries.

In the forties and fifties more land was bought and the first stage of the distinctive office block was built.

By the seventies the company was manufacturing toothpaste, shampoo and conditioners, and exporting powdered detergents to Australia.

Factory manager Neil Robertson said the company produced between 50,000 and 55,000 tonnes of detergent each year, at its peak, and employed between 550 and 600 employees.

Today, there are just 37 production workers left in the highly- automated factory and 21 support staff.

In those years the company trained hundreds of workers.

Former factory engineer Murray Isdale started work for Unilever at its food production plant in Hastings. He accepted redundancy after 33 years, but still occasionally does contract engineering work.

The company had maintained a constant pool of 13 apprentices, a mixture of electrical and fitting and turning.

The number dropped to 10 in later years and was dropped altogether as unit standard training took effect, he said.

It was more than the company could employ when they finished their trade training.

"We saw that as a contribution to trade pool in the Valley," he said.

"There was a degree of self- interest, but also a wider social objective, as well."

After leaving Unilever, Mr Isdale went on to serve on the apprenticeship promotion agency, the ATNZ Trust.

Malcolm Hammond was one fitting and turning apprentice at Unilever in the late seventies.

After a few years gaining experience working in local engineering and production companies, he started his own business, MJH Engineering, and some of his first jobs sole owner-operator were back at Unilever.

Today MJH Engineering employs more than 100 people and operates nation-wide, though more in construction than manufacturing.

"It's a sad day to see them go, for sure," he said.

Christopher Luxon is another Unilever alumnus who began his career at the Petone office as a post-graduate management trainee in 1993.

He went on to become president of the company's $1.4 billion Toronto-based Canadian business and is now chief executive of Air New Zealand.

Paul Keating was a Unilever apprentice who now runs his own business overhauling swimming pool pumps.


1919: Lever Brothers buy 10 acres of land and begin manufacturing Sunlight and Lifebuoy soaps, and Rinso soap powder.

1940: A soap powder drier is installed and glycerine refining begins.

1948: The company buys another three acres.

1956: The first stage of the office block is built.

1976: Personal products production begin - shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste.

1977: The company moves to an export focus.

1994: Upgraded detergent powder drier to supply Lever Rexona, Australia

1995: Production of toilet and laundry soap, and Lux flakes

2002: Australian production stops and a laundry powder concentration plant is built.

2011: Production volumes decline as super-concentrated powders become more popular.

2012: Shampoo and liquid detergent production end on the site.

2013: Laundry powder production is reduced to three-day weeks and eventually the decision is made to close the plant completely by the end of 2015.

Detergent production will shift to Thailand and packaging to Sydney. The 10 acres of land will be sold after some minor soil remediation work

Hutt News