Procter & Gamble is pulling the plug on its century-old factory in Kansas City, Kan.’s Armourdale district, where generations of families have labored to make soap.
The work — and perhaps some of the 280 direct employees — will move to a new P&G plant in Tabler Station, W.Va., built in the last two years essentially to end Armourdale’s legacy.
“I’m third generation,” said Chris Foster, who has spent 28 of his 47 years at the factory and counts more than 150 P&G years in his family, including a cousin, uncle and grandfather.
“My grandfather started down there in 1935. He lived across the river in Argentine, and he walked to work when he was 18,” Foster said. “He went off to World War II and he came back and he worked in that plant until 1980.”
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Others have similar family ties to the Procter & Gamble factory. Some couples work there, too.
Foster and others shut down the plant’s operations Tuesday night as the company told workers to assemble Wednesday morning for news. They had more than an idea of what was coming.
“We weren’t blindsided,” said Foster, who also is president of the Independent Oil and Chemical Workers of Kansas City, Kan., a union that represents 230 of the employees. An additional 100 contract laborers work at the plant.
Foster said they saw Tabler Station’s rise, and one of his friends already has transferred there for work.
“We didn’t know when. We knew eventually that would be happening,” Foster said.
Crews will restart the plant, which will take much of the weekend, and it is slated to keep making soap into 2020. Meanwhile, some employees will be considered for transfer to Tabler Station, which expects to employ 700 to 900.
Foster said the company has a “generous” relocation package. The union will negotiate a severance deal for those who don’t transfer.
“Decisions like this are never easy,” the Proctor & Gamble statement said, “but we are communicating this decision more than two years in advance to help our employees plan for the future. We are committed to supporting P&G people through the transition in a manner consistent with our values and principles.”
The P&G announcement comes less than two weeks after Harley-Davidson Inc. announced it would close its Kansas City motorcycle assembly plant in the fall of 2019. That move will affect about 800 workers.
The local P&G plant lost out to the modern Tabler Station facility despite having current technology and skilled employees. Procter & Gamble, in a 2016 update on the West Virginia construction project, cited another reason.
“Tabler Station will help P&G reach 80 percent of its retail customers and consumers, especially on the east coast, within one day of transit from where the products are made,” the update said.
As it is, Armourdale produces every single bottle of Joy, Dawn, Ivory and Gain dish soap the company sells in America. A London factory similarly serves Europe, according to Foster.
Armourdale also produces surfactant, the cleansing agent, for Tide, ERA, Cheer and Old Spice Body Wash.
It’s all chemical-based soap these days. But when P&G first looked beyond Cincinnati to build its second factory, the Kansas City stockyards caught planners’ attention.
They chose a site just east of the Kaw River, again for proximity. The plant would need animal fat used then in making soap.
P&G even envisioned creating a village nearby for its employees, just as it had created Ivorydale near its original factory in Cincinnati.
P&G’s Armourdale plant opened in 1905. It was expanded several times in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and employed as many as 1,000 people. The plant and the nearby Colgate-Palmolive plant, which closed in 2006, made Kansas City, Kan., at one time the soap-production center of the country.
P&G donated to a relief fund for the great West Bottoms flood of 1951 and provided thousands of bottles of Dawn dish soap to clean oil from wildlife after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.
But the plant also was the subject of odor complaints in the 1960s. Labor disputes plagued the company in the 1970s and 1980s. At least two employees over the years were killed by chemical burns caused by leaks or ruptures at the plant.
In a consolidation move, P&G announced plans in 1994 to close four plants across the country and reduce production lines at other sites. The Kansas City, Kan., plant was spared and received much of the equipment from the closed Baltimore factory.
In 2015, P&G broke ground on the $500 million plant in West Virginia — with 1 million square feet of space under one roof — with an eye to consolidating operations from Armourdale and Iowa City, Iowa. Those plants are to be shuttered in 2020.
Wednesday, Procter & Gamble notified its employees of the move first and then told government and economic development officials, who admitted they were caught off guard.
The company hadn’t sought tax breaks or other incentives to stay. It just said it was leaving.
“We never had any reach-out from them saying we need some help here,” said David Alvey, Unified Government mayor for Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County. “It does make you wonder. If they didn’t reach out to us or Wyandotte Economic Development Council to address these problems, it sounds like it was a decision made in the boardroom.”
P&G’s plant offers a lot of what manufacturers want, both in its good location and its workforce. And officials have almost three years to find a new tenant.
Planners also will find that about 30 percent of the workers are near retirement age, or will be once the factory closes for good in 2020.
Armourdale has been through this before. When the Colgate Palmolive soap plant closed in 2006 and idled 250, government had lined up tax incentives to help VVF Limited of Mumbai, India, open its first U.S. manufacturing operation to make hotel soaps.
Alvey called it proof that the P&G plant will find a new use.
“What it will take to repurpose that facility, I don’t know,” Alvey said. “It’s pretty well spec’d out to meet Procter & Gamble’s needs.”