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Holden exit: Bernhard thanks employees

Respect: From left, Holden chairman and managing director Mark Bernhard, executive director of manufacturing Richard Phillips and former manufacturing worker Andrew Read.

Holden boss pays respects to retrenched Holden manufacturing workers at Elizabeth

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Holden logo20 Oct 2017

BARELY an hour after the final car had rolled off the line at the Elizabeth, South Australia plant, Holden chairman and managing director Mark Bernhard resisted all temptations to “delve into the history” of the closure after being pressed by reporters outside the factory on the last day of production.

“We’ve discussed those reasons over the last couple of years,” he said.

“Today is really about this plant and celebrating with these employees everything that they have achieved, their place in Australian manufacturing history,” he said, refusing to respond to suggestions by South Australian premier Jay Weatherill that the company was chased out of the Australian manufacturing landscape by the federal Coalition government.

“I’m not going to delve into the history – today is about this plant and this group of employees,” he said.

While about 1000 of its most recent employees watched the last Commodore – an SS-V Redline manual sedan in the obligatory ‘Red Hot’ paint colour – complete its final quality checks and complete the final stages of its production, hundreds more members of the public gathered outside the main administration entrance.

The cavalcade – almost an impromptu show ‘n’ shine but with the tone of a wake – followed up the formal Dream Cruise last weekend that attracted more than 25,000 people, and it is that passion Mr Bernhard aims to maintain for the brand going forward.

“They all have a Holden story, that’s part of what’s great about our brand and we need to keep that as we go into the future,” he said.

The affable Holden boss also deflected queries about sales volumes going forward, refusing to engage in discussions about market share and totals in the wake of the closure.

“We’re really pleased with where we’re heading in the future, product or looking after customers, but today I want to focus on the employees, the people and what they have achieved,” he said.

So far this year, Holden’s sales are down by 12.4 per cent compared to the same period last year, with a total of 62,446 units shifted, with the only model in its range showing any sales growth being the Colorado pick-up range.

Watched closely by local police who reduced speed limits and maintained a visible presence, hundreds of Holden fans found shade on the lawns, some in folding chairs, while others walked the length of the factory looking at perhaps 150 classic and more recent Holdens parked along both sides of the kilometre long stretch of the highway adjacent the administration building.

Many more drove prime and less-pristine examples of the Holden breed back and forward along the multi-lane Philip Highway at kerb-crawling speeds, some revving engines but resisting the urge to make more than noise.

Holden executive director of manufacturing Richard Phillips, an Elizabeth boy who started his career as an apprentice fitter and machinist in the maintenance team at the Holden plant in 1987, thanked Holden’s employees past and present, as well as its suppliers.

“I’d like to thank the many generations of Holden employees and suppliers that have made this journey possible, and I’d like to say to the Australian people to simply be proud of this memorable time in our history,” he said.

“Our manufacturing work is now complete, there are many more chapters in the Holden story and I look forward to seeing them as we go ahead.”

Mr Phillips paid tribute to the Elizabeth workforce and its pride in the product, having seen the Australian plant regularly earn top internal quality audits for its Cruze as well as the Commodore.

“Sixty nine years ago the prime minister Ben Chifley announced our first Australian-built vehicle with the words ‘she’s a beauty’ and today, as a humble lad from Elizabeth, as I saw that car rolling past me on the line, the thought came to my mind was simply that ‘she’s perfect’.

“What an outstanding team we’ve had here that have ensured that our last car is the best car ever.”

Seen as something of an unusual move, the Holden public relations department also presented a 14-year veteran of the factory, a team leader from the General Assembly section of the plant, to speak to waiting media.

Andrew Read, 44, who is completing a Bachelor of Nursing, having started the degree on a part-time basis, nervously stood before the microphones from all the TV networks and talked with pride about his time at Holden.

Mr Read described the workforce as family and said he believed there would be few companies anywhere with staff as dedicated and passionate about what they produced.

“Four years ago was a day that changed our lives,” he said “We searched for answers, and someone to blame, but like Holden we adapted, we accepted the change and now our future awaits.”

The company had treated its factory workforce – which numbers just 945 but was once more than triple that number – with dignity and respect in the midst of the closure, according to Mr Read.

“It’s a sad day for me, Holden and SA, but we walk out of here with our heads held high, full of pride and passion for the company, knowing we can build a world-class recognised car,” he said.

The decision to announce the closure four years ago “was a relief” in some ways, according to Mr Read.

“Two years prior we have been ‘are we staying or closing?’ To hear it, as hard as it was, we knew what our future was going to be,” he said.

“I think most people are ready, they’ve had their preparation time, they’re sad but this day we knew it was coming,” he added.

The desire to finish what they had started resulted in a large number of staff remaining until the end.

“I think all who stayed for the last day showed great pride and passion for the company. I don’t think there’d be many companies where the people who work there have so much love and passion for the product. I drive a Commodore and most of my mates do.

“It’s been a fantastic journey. To show commitment and loyalty, we didn’t want someone else to build the last car.”

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