AFTER months of excruciating uncertainty, the town of Heyfield collectively breathed a sigh of relief on Friday, when the sale of Australian Sustainable Hardwoods’ Heyfield mill was finalised.
ASH will continue operating, owned by a holding company made up of the state government and a shareholder group of ASH management.
Existing chief executive officer Vince Hurley, engineering and projects manager Garry Henthorn, national sales manager Brett Bould, marketing manager Daniel Ryan and commercial manager Ian Jones are now joint owners, putting in their own money to keep the company afloat.
Industry and Employment Minister Wade Noonan will be responsible for the transition of ownership from the Hermal Group and oversee the corporate structure and strategic direction of the mill.
A new board will be established and the existing ASH management team will be responsible for the day to day operations of the business.
ASH employees received a text message from ASH management at 10.45am on Friday detailing the sale’s finalisation, which was confirmed again at a whole staff meeting at 2.30pm.
The news was well received.
“A lot of people are saying, it’s great, we’ve finally got some certainty, and now we’ve got a future and we know who’s driving the bus,” Mr Hurley said.
“It’s great to have that security, it’s great that we are now going forward, we’re not in a holding pattern … we can go forward and do things, and keep improving.
“We are constantly putting things into different market segments and growing our business margin-wise, and growing our manufacturing capability, and that’s where the jobs will be.
“So there’s no fixed number (of employees) to get down to because we’re increasing our manufacturing capability, it doesn’t necessarily mean that as many jobs will have to go, we’ll be able to maximise it.
“We’ve done a business plan, and the new board and state government will have a say in that draft business plan, and once it’s finalised, that’s what we’ll be enacting.”
Responding to opposition criticisms that the Labor government failed to save all 250 jobs after the company’s green mill was reduced to one shift, Mr Hurley reiterated there had been no involuntary redundancies.
“We have 24 people who have left or will be leaving the company they’re all voluntary, they’re going to new opportunities or retiring, and they’ve asked to do that,” Mr Hurley said.
“Now we’ve got a bit of time to plan for how we can maximise job opportunities going forward.
“CMFEU did negotiate a better redundancy with the state government, and that’s been very good for the employees.
“The Latrobe Valley Authority will be able to discuss future pathways to employees who want to take redundancy, enable assistance in training and other things to enable that to occur.”
Mr Hurley said the company’s priority was extending the tenure of its timber supply contract with VicForests, which currently stands at 80,000 cubic metres per year for three years.
“We have a three year contract with VicForests which provides us with some immediate certainty, and there’ll be a process to enable us to get more volume after that three years,” he said.
Mr Hurley said he was not at liberty to say who owned a bigger share in the company, but that he was looking forward to working with the state government to secure a future for the business.
Eastern Victoria MLC Harriet Shing said the government was standing by Heyfield and the whole of Gippsland.
“We will continue working to create and protect local jobs now and into the future, including through our investment of $110 million into plantation timber in Gippsland,” she said.
The opposition continued its campaign of highlighting the government’s failure to deliver on initial promises, insisting the “glaring omission” in the government’s confirmation of the sale was a promise that all 250 jobs would be saved.
Nationals leader and shadow Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said the premier’s decision to refuse timber supply to the Heyfield mill left the local community in limbo for nearly a year.
“Labor is desperate to paint this deal as a win for the community to cover up the fact jobs have already been lost at the mill and that they have not guaranteed there won’t be further losses to come,” he said.
Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said each and every one of the jobs were vital to the Heyfield community.
“These jobs wouldn’t have needed saving if Labor hadn’t refused to guarantee a viable timber supply,” he said.
“Daniel Andrews is so desperate to secure Greens preferences and the seats of his inner-city MPs that he is willing to sacrifice those in our East Gippsland communities.”
Wellington Shire Council’s mayor Carolyn Crossley cautiously welcomed the news, saying while the deal meant job security for many of the workers at the mill, she was concerned about the mill operating at a smaller capacity and what that would mean in the longer term.
“ASH, as it has operated in the past, has contributed a great deal of economic prosperity throughout the whole of Gippsland, and indeed has had flow on to jobs across the state,” she said.
“The timber supply has only been secured for the next three years and at a level that is quite below full operating capacity.
“We need to be certain that the timber supply will continue and have the potential to increase, so that Heyfield residents can be ensured that the town’s major employer has a secure future.”
Victorian Association of Forest Industries CEO Tim Johnston said he welcomed the news, and that it was great to see sawmilling and associated wood manufacturing would continue in Heyfield.
“The forest, fibre and wood products industry is the lifeblood of many rural and regional communities across Victoria,” he said.
“It is a $7 billion-dollar industry that employs 21,000 Victorians and supports another 40,000 to 50,000 local jobs, many of these in regional areas.”
Committee for Gippsland CEO Mary Aldred said the past 12 months had been tumultuous for ASH workers and the local Heyfield community, but the purchase would provide certainty and a path forward.
“The potential alternative of not having a mill in Heyfield was simply unacceptable as an outcome,” Ms Aldred said.
“Today’s announcement marks a line in the sand, and provides a clean slate for the company to start planning with its workforce for a sustainable, value-adding future here in Gippsland.”