WestRock announces closing of Columbus plant

The WestRock plant at 3101 State St. in Columbus is scheduled to close. The company announced to employees on Tuesday that the plant would close in October, sources said.

The Columbus WestRock packaging container plant that employs about 100 people is scheduled to cease production in October, closing a factory that has been a major employer in the community for about 55 years.

WestRock, 3101 State St., gathered employees from all three shifts on Tuesday morning to inform them that the plant would be closing in mid-October.

A letter dated Aug. 15 that was provided to employees said layoffs were expected to occur on Oct. 15. That would conform with federal law that requires 60 days’ notice of plant closings for facilities of WestRock’s size. However, no plant-closing notice under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act had been filed as of midday Monday.

Employees at the plant are represented by United Steelworkers 701, and a majority of employees have union representation, plant workers said after the announcement.

WestRock corporate spokesman Robby Johnson said production at the plant would cease in mid-October though some employees may continue to be employed after that date. He said employees are eligible to apply for open positions at other WestRock facilities.

“WestRock continually evaluates the profitable growth of operations to ensure it can continue delivering value to customers and team members,” Johnson said in an email, adding, “the Columbus facility requires significant capital investment in the future to stay competitive.”

Johnson said the plant site is expected to be fully closed by mid-January 2024. He said long-term plans have not been announced and selling the site is being considered.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said he was furnished a copy of the plant-closing letter late Monday but had no prior indication that WestRock planned to close the plant.

“We lament the loss of any employer,” Lienhoop said. “We also feel badly for the employees who will need to find another employer.

“If something like this is going to happen, now is probably as good a time as any for the community to provide a chance for employment,” he said, given the current low local unemployment rate and large number of open positions. “Hopefully, folks will be able to find employment in short order.”

Johnson said the plant closing in Columbus will have no impact on operations at the Bartholomew County Solid Waste Management District. WestRock currently picks up most of the district’s recyclable materials.

Atlanta-based WestRock was ranked No. 1 in the packaging and containers industry category and ranks 69th on the 2023 Fortune 500 of the largest U.S. corporations by revenue.

Shares in the company traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol WRK have declined steadily since hitting a five-year peak of $60.57 on May 14, 2021. After falling to a 52-week low of $26.64 in May, shares have recovered somewhat. At midday Tuesday, WestRock stock was trading at $32.78.

The company’s overall revenue has slumped of late. Revenue of $20.724 billion for the year ending June 30 was down 1.05% from the previous year and its quarterly earnings for the three-month period ending June 30 were 7.22% lower than the same period in 2022.

The Columbus plant originally was opened by Weyerhaeuser Inc. in 1968 and reached full production capacity in 1969. It operated under numerous names over the years.

In 1973, Weyerhaeuser sold the plant to the Hoerner-Waldorf Corp., and it later operated as Champion International Corp. Corrugated Containers, Stone Container Corp., Smurfit-Stone Container, Rock Tenn, and under other names. WestRock formed in 2015 after Rock Tenn and MeadWestvaco merged.