"Box Factory," Road And Port Key To Prosperity

KEY to Warrenpoint’s prosperity have been Reeds factory, - now SGA Packaging, - the dual carriageway and new harbour, developed in the 60s. So stated the `Point’s best-known resident, Jim McCart, whose long-time seat on Newry and Mourne district council has been the focus of a controversial bye-election.

An early employee of the `Box factory,’ established by Thompson Norris in 1947, this former chairman of two councils has seen the corrugated cases plant grow from a labour force of about 48 to over 500, employed by the biggest such industry in Ireland.

And it is topical to recall that Edmund Hillery, who was the first person to climb Everest, 50 years ago, had a fibreboard box, manufactured at the Warrenpoint factory, as part of his luggage!

Jim McCart, who has retired from the position of Shift Production Manager, reported that about £250 million had been pumped into the local economy in wages and salaries over the past half-century. Not only that, but the rates of pay at the plant had set the standard for other employers in the area; and it also gave employment to haulage firms in the area.

Among the personalities, who have passed through the factory gates on the Newry Road, have been the late Niall McGurk, a machinist from Peter’s Place in Newry. He later established the Newcell paper-producing plant in Crossmaglen, now at the Carnbane industrial estate in Newry. Just over five years deceased, he was awarded the Bene Merenti medal by Pope John Paul.

Production manager, Hugh McCormick, - an uncle of Down GAA Secretary, Donal; leading accountant Fearghal; and Rory, chairman of the family engineering company, - emigrated to Canada and established his own company there. Gerry Jones was transferred to the Reeds plant in Australia, and became a director.

Leading figures in the management were Jack Hargreaves, chief executive for 25 years; Len O’Hagan, the driving force, with a flair for innovation; Eamon Hillen, who became number two at the local plant; John Moore, Wally Giles and Eunan Crawford. Peter Fitzsimmons from Warrenpoint, appointed Chief Executive of S.G.A. Packaging (Ireland), is now Sales Director for the company worldwide.

Sport has played a major role at the plant, located a few yards from Warrenpoint Golf Club. Indeed, some of the workers were ex-caddies, including Jim McCart. Members of Reeds’ Golfing Society included Bob Bryson, John Rooney, Jim Stewart, Harry Heatley, Paddy Magee, Jack Dinsmore, Bob Tate, James Burns, Hugh Wray, Ernie McGuffin and Claud Bigg.

The Gaelic football side, managed by Jimmy Devlin, included Hilary McGrath, who was in the Down side, which won the Sam Maguire Cup in 1968, while Leo McCabe played for Armagh. On the soccer team were Bob Bryson, who also played for Linfield; Eamonn Cole, now Secretary of Newry Town F.C, as well as Raymond Woods, who played in the Carnbane League. The musicians included the McKinley twins, Billy and Derek, members of St Peter’s Silver Band, as well as the Fire Service and the St John Ambulance Brigade.

Among the supervisors were Hugh Carr and his cousin, Phil Carr, Hugh Wray and Peter Sheridan, while Gertie Black from Bessbrook was in charge of the canteen. Many of the maintenance staff came from the Model Village, having experience at the local mill. A large number of the original employees had worked at the Warrenpoint shipyard. Most could walk to work; some cycled or came on the bus, - very few travelled by car.

As Jim McCart reported: “One of the main features of employment was the policy of staff development and training at all levels. A lot of time and energy was devoted to that essential aspect, which repaid the company in the long run. Another feature was involvement of employees. This ensured that there has never been an official dispute.

He explained that the `Point had been chosen as the location for the plant by Thompson Norris, because of their close connection with Chivers, who operated a potato and jam-processing plant in Newry. In the 50’s, the industry was taken over by the Reed Corporation, and a major extension was officially opened in 1964 by the Stormont Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill.

Meanwhile, about 40 per cent of the paper has come through Warrrenpoint port, mainly from Russia, North and South America. Back in the 50’s, Kelly’s managed the local dock, importing only coal. The expansion into paper for Reeds was the first development for the present modern harbour.

Nor has the company ignored the welfare of its employees, being one of the first to have a company pension scheme. And, in 1972, unions and management established a formal procedure to resolve employee relations problems and to improve workers’ benefits. This must have been welcome to ATGWU Organiser, John O’Donnell, plagued by many problems in other industries!

From the early days, Childrens’ Christmas Parties were held in the Alexander Hotel and later the Town Hall. Plant outings took place to Bangor, Bray, Portrush or Butlins. The Social Club and the various sports clubs held annual functions, while Reeds had floats in the Belfast Lord Mayor’s Show and the Newry Canal Festival Parties.

The company has also built up a special relationship with local schools and the community. It has also been active in the business community, playing an important role national bodies, such as chambers of commerce and the C.B.I.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008