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Last chapter for Depew printing plant Shutdown of Quad/Graphics facility linked to age, consolidation

The Depew printing plant now run by Quad/Graphics has been a survivor over the decades.

It endured ownership changes, a bankruptcy by a parent company, and serious blows like the loss of Reader's Digest production in the 1990s.

Its work force shrank. But the George Urban Boulevard plant persevered, aiming to produce millions of mass market paperback books at a low cost.

Now its long history -- written under the names J.W. Clement, Arcata Graphics, Quebecor and World Color Press -- is ending. Wisconsin-based Quad/Graphics announced last week it will shut the plant in the fourth quarter, eliminating about 400 jobs.

After almost 50 years in operation, the Depew site is falling victim to consolidation by its new owner, the facility's age and large size, and a difficult market for paperbacks.

The Depew plant was part of World Color Press when Quad/Graphics, the largest privately held printer in the United States, entered the picture last year. Quad/Graphics acquired Montreal-based Worldcolor in summer 2010 for $1.3 billion and converted to a publicly traded company.

Quad/Graphics entered the deal with 11 U.S. plants, at a time when Worldcolor was already closing some plants in early 2010. As the combination took root, Quad/Graphics announced more plant closings.

The Depew plant was spared, but bad news came last December: 95 jobs were being eliminated as Quad/Graphics moved out some of the plant's work. If workers were already nervous about their long-term prospects, the announcement only deepened their concerns.

"I think the employees were just waiting for the shoe to fall on this facility," said Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, D-Cheektowaga, whose district includes the plant.

The worst news came last Monday, when Quad/Graphics announced the closing. A notice filed with the state Department of Labor says the company will begin layoffs in July, and intends to close the plant Nov. 30. A handful of employees will remain after that to finish winding down operations.

Quad/Graphics said neither the workers, represented by several unions, nor the quality of their work led to the shutdown. Rather, the company wanted to consolidate operations and said the Depew plant's age, condition and capacity utilization were all negatives. Its work will be moved to Quad/Graphics plants in West Virginia and Massachusetts.

"They said the age of the plant, the technology, really didn't make them competitive enough in terms of what they could do, what they could provide," Gabryszak said.

> A giant plant

Quad/Graphics is known in the industry for its state-of-the-art technology, and the company had options, with available capacity, outside of Depew. But the Depew plant's vast size, about 830,000 square feet, proved a liability, especially given how much of the space was going unused.

Geography also worked against Depew. Quad/Graphics has two facilities in Martinsburg, W.V., plus a plant about 50 miles away from there in Fairfield, Pa. By consolidating freight from these and other nearby facilities, Quad/Graphics says it can distribute its products quickly and economically using the East Coast Interstate system.

The company plans to invest $15 million in its book operations in West Virginia, and previously announced an investment in its Massachusetts location.

Alfred Culliton, chief operating officer of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, said Quad/Graphics did not seek any financial help from the ECIDA to make the Depew plant more competitive. "Those were good jobs," he said.

The Depew plant had survived internal competition before, as part of Quebecor Printing. In the late 1990s, Quebecor bought a rival company and had to choose between the Depew site and one in Tennessee. The Depew plant prevailed, thanks in part to labor-management cooperation.

For years, the local plant also had a strong advocate in Kevin J. Clarke. The Niagara University graduate served as the plant's general manager, and later moved up to president of Worldcolor's publishing services group. He kept his office here, even as he traveled more extensively for his job.

But Clarke left Worldcolor in late 2009 and is now president and chief executive officer of Catalyst Paper Corp., based near Vancouver, B.C.

> Harlequin next door

Some believed the Depew plant would be "left alone" because of its close ties to Harlequin, a major customer, said one Quad/Graphics source. Harlequin Sales Corp. has a distribution center beside Quad/Graphics in Depew, and Harlequin Enterprises has offices in Toronto.

But that proximity turned out to offer no protection. The books Harlequin receives from its Depew neighbor will instead be shipped from West Virginia, said John Reindl, general manager of the distribution center.

"To us, it will be fairly transparent, other than the books will be printed at another facility," he said. The switch will not affect Harlequin's 300 local jobs, he added.

Reindl said he understood the business rationale behind Quad/Graphics' decision, but he is disappointed the site will not survive, noting the close ties that developed through the years between the neighbors.

"That's a hard change for everybody to take," he said.

Gene Opatkiewicz worked at the plant for more than 44 years before retiring a few years ago.

"I've seen it coming for a couple of years now," said Opatkiewicz, formerly a union leader at the plant. The printing industry is under greater pressure than ever, with strong competition from electronic forms of communication, he said.

The job count fluctuated over the years, but at times it reached 1,500 or more employees. Reader's Digest was once a lucrative source of work. In summer 1975, the plant announced a $100 million, multiyear deal to keep producing the magazine, as it had since 1965. The site was printing about 10.5 million copies of the magazine per month. The Reader's Digest work went away in 1996.

Over the years, the plant also printed retail inserts for newspapers, brochures, a variety of magazines, and AAA Tour Books.

And it churned out paperback books, millions of them. A 2008 Buffalo News story mentioned the plant had produced 270 million of mass-market paperbacks the previous year.

> A good run

The future looked bright in 1963 when J.W. Clement finished moving into its new $4.5 million plant, relocating operations of two Buffalo plants there. "I know we'll be here a long while and many other businesses will join us on the tract," said William Roesser, Clement's president, at a 1963 dinner welcoming the company to Depew.

In 1965, the Clement company was acquired by Arcata and the local plant was renamed Arcata Graphics. Quebecor Printing bought Arcata's printing plants in 1993. In 2008, the company then known as Quebecor World filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and adopted the Worldcolor name after emerging in 2009. Next came Quad/Graphics.

The Depew plant was known over the years not only as a major employer, but a printing operation with the technology and capability to handle a variety of production, said Timothy Freeman, president of the Amherst-based Printing Industries Alliance.

Freeman said he sees three factors contributing to the plant's fate: chronic overcapacity in the industry; the shift toward electronic formats, such as the Kindle e-reader; and a still-uncertain economy.

The closing adds to the region's well-documented loss of manufacturing jobs. It also will leave a massive property in need of a new use.

The company is trying to help the employees find other jobs in the area or within Quad/Graphics, said Claire Ho, a company spokeswoman. "We understand we're impacting people's lives and we want to help them move forward in their careers."

Those careers won't be at the Depew plant, a source of jobs, economic spinoff and memories going back decades. For the retiree Opatkiewicz, the loss is personal. "I have a lot of friends over there."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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