The Government Printing Office decades ago. PHOTOS/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE
This year marks 30 years since the sale of the Government Printing Office for $23 million. It also marks the end of another era of printing in Masterton, with a proposal made this week to axe 44 jobs at what is now Webstar Masterton. EMILY IRELAND reports.
In 1984, more than 1000 people worked for the Government Printing Office.
Just 40 will remain at what is now Webstar Masterton if a proposal to shift printing operations to Auckland goes ahead.
Last week, Webstar chief executive Bernie Roberts told staff the company was opening a consultation on buying a commercial printing press in Auckland.
This would have them decommission three printing presses in its Masterton plant, resulting in the loss of up to 44 jobs at its Ngaumutawa Rd site.
Webstar employs more than 80 staff at its plant on Ngaumutawa Rd and another 80 in Auckland.
It is not the first time the printing industry in Masterton has seen significant changes.
In 1976, GPO’s printing operations shifted from Wellington to Masterton.
It was later privatised, setting in motion a chain of events that would have it become Webstar.
A published book by David Wakefield called Takeaway: The Sale of the Government Printing Office details the circumstances that led to the privatisation of the business.
In 1987, the New Zealand Government announced a financial strategy to reduce public debt by selling assets.
One asset under the gavel was GPO, valued at between $70-$100 million.
“But over the following two years, the sale process, that was poorly conceived, never achieved anywhere near the expected return, and the largest and most profitable printing, publishing, and stationery business in the country was sold for less than its asset value,” Wakefield said.
Six companies made bids to buy GPO.
Rank Group Ltd’s was the highest at $23.7m.
The price came down to $23m because of undisclosed capital-purchase commitments, and a settlement date of January 31, 1990, was proposed.
The cost of the sale to the government was $12m.
In the year that haggling was ongoing between the Crown and Rank Group Ltd, more than $9m worth of parliamentary work was completed and three million telephone books worth another $20m were made.
By the time the sale process was completed, the number of employees was about 650.
This was further reduced by 101 after the sale.
In the first year of ownership under Graeme Hart, Rank made more money than the Crown received for the sale of the business.
Wakefield said Hart recognised employees as a key asset and kept a close eye on expenditure.
During the installation of a new directory press, engineers recommended a wall be built between the old press and new one to prevent dust contamination.
“In the days when GPO was a government department, this $10,000 wall would have been approved and built,” Wakefield said.
“But Rank canvassed for a cheaper option and decided on the recommendation from one of the Masterton employees that a wall could be made from stacking reels of paper on top of each other.”
In 1991, Rank shareholders approved the purchase of Whitcoulls for $71.2m, and Rank changed its name to Whitcoulls.
Five years later, Whitcoulls was sold to the Blue Star Group.
In 1997, Webstar came to being as part of the Blue Star Group.
Bob Francis was Masterton’s mayor during the privatisation of GPO.
Last week, he reflected that the news about job losses at Webstar was disappointing, but it was good they were staying in Wairarapa and continuing to print.
“The fact they’re staying here and retaining 40-odd jobs is a positive,” he told Times-Age.
“But it’s a real blow to those people who work there.
“They’ll get a lot of support from the wider community. But they have been a long-standing business and provided a lot of employment. It’s great they’re still going to retain a presence here.”
Francis said closures were happening across the country. But initiatives such as the Wairarapa Economic Development Strategy would help make the area a go-to destination for employers.
“There’s a need to continue that good work and the three councils should maintain a big response when looking to make this region a great place to establish business.
“There are some good things going on too.”