BEHIND THE NEWS
> AS FORD AUSTRALIA WINDS DOWN LOCAL MANUFACTURING, WE ASK SOME LOYAL LONGTERM EMPLOYEES WHAT THE BLUE OVAL HAS MEANT TO THEM, AND WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
As Ford Australia winds down local manufacturing, we talk to those most affected – the workers
BRIAN Makin is a Ford lifer. He’s spent nearly 42 years doing his best for the Blue Oval in Australia in a variety of roles, starting with an apprenticeship when he was just 17 years old. But when he finishes with Ford, so too Ford finishes as a manufacturer in Australia. How does he feel about that?
“Really bad. Yeah, I uh – I get a bit choked up,” he says, before taking a moment to compose himself.
“The thing that concerns me is that, yes, [some] people are transferring to other areas of Ford and they’ll be successful,” he continues. “But obviously other people will leave Ford, and my concern is for their welfare and their opportunities for employment in the district or elsewhere.
“I just know the impact of Ford and manufacturing has had on this country; it will leave a big hole.”
Nowadays Makin has a long title that essentially means he is one of the most senior blokes at Ford’s Geelong manufacturing site. He joined in 1975 and will exit this month, aged 59. Before him, his father started at Ford Australia in 1941.
But after October, so much that Makin has worked for and loved won’t be there anymore. The giant presses will cease stamping. The engine blocks will no longer be cast. No more trucks will arrive to ship the parts up the highway to Broadmeadows for assembly, as they have done for 56 years.
The last Falcons and Territorys will come down the assembly line and then – nothing. Except memories.
Twelve months from now, it won’t only be Ford departing, as Holden and Toyota close their plants and the automotive manufacturing industry as we know it in Australia will no longer exist.
“The skills we have as a country are going to diminish,” Makin says of the imminent closures. “That leaves a big hole for me, because as a country, we’re going to reduce our capabilities.”
Makin’s anguish is easy to understand. As a Geelong boy born and bred, he knows the Ford factories have stood on the Melbourne road in the city’s east since early last century, sturdy evidence of Ford’s power and prestige and Geelong’s vitality as an industrial hub and employer. This was the first home of Ford Australia, and where it built its first cars locally.
But inside the office building where we meet, there are rows of empty cubicles and ample evidence of an era now gone. There are posters of racing Falcons winning at Bathurst. Now Ford doesn’t even sponsor a team.
“I remember all this office area being full of people. But with technology and reduced volumes, things have changed,” Makin muses.
“I’ve got no idea how many people have been employed on this site or overall by Ford Australia. Hundreds of thousands? They are people who may have worked here for a month and some for 40 years. It’s
[been] an incredible journey and it’s just supported so many lives along that journey.”
Among them is Nick De Giorgio, whose father worked at Ford in Geelong before him and then took his son in for an interview in 1989, five years after he’d retired. Nick got the job as a press operator the next day. In a 25-year career he rose through the ranks in the stamping plant to become a team leader.
He says the place was buzzing at its height; a heaving mass of characters and cultures from all over the world, which all left their impact on him. “You’d meet a lot of people from different nationalities. You’d learn more about people there than you did anywhere else [in terms of] their cultures and all that,” he says.
“We didn’t think [the closure] was going to happen,” he continues. “We just thought it was going to keep going. We heard all the rumours but they never seemed to come true,” he says.
But he changed his mind when he met Bob Graziano, the American who arrived to become president of Ford Australia in 2010. “The first impressions we got from the way he spoke to us just made us think he’d come to shut us down,” De Giorgio says.
Of course, whether that is true or not is something only a few people in the higher reaches of Ford could know. But De Giorgio doesn’t hold that against the company. Married with two young kids, he took a package and left in 2015 to start up his own courier business.
“All the help we needed, they gave it to us and I just utilised that to my
advantage,” De Giorgio says. “They probably offered more support than they should have done, and they did it for everyone.”
Luke Mcseveny has also moved on. After nine years at Ford as an engineer, he left in 2014, only months after the closure plan was announced. He says his career highlight was being part of the team responsible for reinstalling the V8 engine line at Geelong after the purchase of Ford Performance Vehicles in 2012, some 30 years after the last V8s were built there.
“That was beautiful,” he smiles. “We had to create a quality control system using nothing we had ever done previously, because everything else before was high-cost and [required] mechanical interlocking protection to avoid errors.
“We went from that to this one guy just building his own engine on a trolley. We developed this ipad interface so every guy got an ipad and they went through taking a couple of hundred photos of every engine in the build process and had to tick off every control.
“That was fun; building a V8 is one of the nicer jobs. I’ve got one out there with my signature on it.”
That emphasis on quality and innovation is something Boris Zaroje understands. He came to Broadmeadows with his family from Croatia when he was 13, joined the Broadmeadows assembly plant in the body shop in 1976, and has worked almost all his adult life for Ford. Through a variety of roles he has been focused on the improvement of vehicle assembly ever since.
‘Broady’ looks to have changed little since the first XK Falcons rolled out in 1960. A series of low, flat, white buildings stretch across an often windswept plain, bounded by the Hume Highway to the east and a railway line to the west. Hundreds of gleaming Falcons and Territorys sit waiting for transportation to dealerships and their owners.
But it will soon be over, something Zaroje is philosophical about. “On 7 October, I’ll exceed 40 years and four months working at Ford. I leave on 14 October,” he says. “If I look at the 40 years of service, that in itself is a milestone. If I look at what Ford means to me, it is a whole lot. Will I continue to love Ford? The answer is yes. After 40 years it becomes part of you, whether you like it or not.”
Love of Ford is something Suzanne Mcconchie never had a choice in. She is one generation of a family that bleeds blue and has known little else except working for Ford at Broadmeadows. In her family there are two brands of car: Ford and Junk.
Her grandfather worked there for 25 years, her father for six months and her brother for six years. She met her husband Patrick at Ford because he also worked there. He still does, as does Patrick’s brother.
An engineer and former member of Ford’s graduate program, Mcconchie joined the Blue Oval 13 years ago. And like Brian Makin, she has shed her tears. The day – 23 May 2013 – when Graziano called the Broadmeadows assembly plant workforce together in the staff canteen to tell them manufacturing would end in three years’ time, she couldn’t hold back.
“On that day I cried a lot,” she recalls. “I realised I wasn’t going to achieve my goal of being the first female plant manager, because that job was no longer going to exist. My plan for the next 10 years was gone. I was like: ‘What am I going to do now and what are all these people going to do now?’ I’ve often wondered about the first Monday after they leave; they have been coming here for 25 or 30 years and they wake up and don’t come in.’”
Now Suzanne and Patrick are having their first child and he or she will be born into the Ford ways too, as both parents are amongst the 160 staff to move from manufacturing to Ford Asia-pacific Engineering.
This is very much the silver lining in the dark cloud that is the closure of Ford’s Australian manufacturing operations. Come 2018, Ford will be Australia’s biggest automotive employer, with 1100 design and engineering employees spread across Geelong, the You Yangs testing ground and at Broadmeadows, where the old HQ building is currently being converted to office space for the product development team.
“In July 2014 I got a job in product development,” Mcconchie recounts. “I’d worked for 11 years in manufacturing, but I really wanted to work in design. But I wouldn’t change it; I learned so much about how to build a car. I’ve worked in sheet metal, I’ve worked in trim, I’ve worked in final, I’ve worked in quality, I’ve worked in product logistics. So now I’m moving into product development with much more knowledge of how a car is built, versus those who have only ever done it virtually on a computer.”
As much as her new future excites her, Mcconchie is conscious of the closure that has to be dealt with first. Her baby is due the week before, so she probably won’t be there to watch the final Falcon be completed.
“I kind of feel relief that I won’t be here,” she admits. “There has to be a last car – then the emptiness. That’s just weird.”