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An Institution Is Fading Away In Long Beach : Procter & Gamble Closing Plant It Opened in 1931

June 29, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

On the fourth floor of a concrete Depression-era factory in Long Beach, seemingly endless lines of white Ivory soap bars rumble along conveyor belts toward machines that wrap them in blue and white.

Across an alley, row upon row of familiar orange and blue boxes containing Tide laundry detergent stand like so many soldiers awaiting orders.

The scene has been little changed for 56 years at this Procter & Gamble factory. But one day soon the place will close down, a victim of corporate economics.

Built in 1931 on a man-made peninsula at the Port of Long Beach within easy reach of the docks to which raw materials were shipped, the plant has produced--besides Ivory and Tide--such well-known American household staples as Cheer and Bold laundry detergents, Cascade dish washing detergent, Crisco shortening and Puritan oil.

Housed in classic gray factory buildings that conjure images of the Great Depression era in which it was born, the plant has employed some families for generations.

"I grew up with the company," said Dario Melchiori, a warehouse shipper who has worked there for 18 of his 38 years.

His father and uncle, he said, retired after careers at the company that spanned 38 and 35 years respectively, and another uncle still works at the plant after 30 years.

"I've been with the company since I was born," said Melchiori, who lives in Riverside. "It's my family."

But the factory, which now employs 420 workers, will be closed by Oct. 2, 1988, and the "family" will be scattered.

Officials of Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati-based consumer products giant, say that the items manufactured at the Long Beach plant can be produced more economically at some of the company's 120 other facilities, which are located throughout the world.

"It's a big loss," said Melchiori. "I'm not sure what I'll do."

Said Hattie Greenhouse, who lives in Compton and has worked as an administrative assistant in the company's financial department for the last eight years: "I'm sad. It means hitting the job market again."

The demise of the Long Beach plant--one of the oldest P&G facilities on the West Coast--is part of an $800-million company-wide restructuring announced earlier this month. Faced with recent consolidations in the operations of key raw material suppliers, coupled with technological improvements that allow the production of more volume with less equipment, company officials have decided to do some consolidating of their own by closing some of their factories that make similar products.

The result, promises P&G Chairman John G. Smale, will be a "stronger, more competitive company" better prepared to show future growth in earnings.

Closures had been announced earlier in Omaha, Cincinnati and Green Bay, Wis.

"I was just stunned when I first heard the news," said Elaine Hutchison, chairman of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "There's almost a sense of disbelief. We have all become acc1970500719here."

John Shirey, assistant city manager, said: "People were taking Procter & Gamble for granted. This just brings us all back to the reality that any employer can be here today and then gone tomorrow."

While city officials and community leaders unanimously decry the loss of the plant, many also admit that their concerns may have more to do with nostalgia than with economics.

Built on a site originally constructed for the 1928 Long Beach World Exposition, the company was the second major manufacturer (following Ford Motor Co., which has since left) to locate in Long Beach and once served as one of the city's largest employers. During the Depression, when work was scarce, the plant--which began with 50 employees and has never suffered a strike or been shut down--provided local jobs.

In 1941, according to a history published by the facility for its 50th anniversary, the Army installed anti-aircraft batteries on the plant's roofs and covered its windows with black curtains to camouflage interior lights.

Spurred City's Growth

After World War II, according to Hutchison, the plant played a major role in promoting the growth of the city by providing employment to former military personnel home from the war. "Many of them," she said, "were able to find work at P&G and therefore could return to the community, get married and raise families in Long Beach."

Since then, Hutchison said, the city has grown to the point where it now hosts enough other major companies to more easily absorb the plant's loss. "Procter & Gamble's willingness to be in Long Beach provided a stability that allowed the community to grow and that growth has really taken off," she said.

Representatives of the port have already expressed interest in purchasing the site, which they say could be turned into marine terminals that would create almost as many jobs as the plant's closure will eliminate.

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