Maple Leaf Foods is sinking another $182 million into its Manitoba pork complex, building a pre-cooked bacon expansion at its already sprawling Lagimodiere facility.
The 73,000-square-foot expansion also means the company will expand its workforce by about 350 people. Some have already been hired and more will be added as the new operation gets to full production by the end of this year or early in the new year.
Maple Leaf has been selling branded pre-cooked bacon but it used assistance from third-party partners in the U.S. up until now.
Iain Stewart, Maple Leaf Foods’ senior vice-president, operations, supply chain and purchasing said the company’s investment in its own production capabilities in this product category has been in the works since before the pandemic.
“But with all the disruption in supply chains and the fact that it is close to Brandon (where Maple Leaf slaughters all its hogs for its North American pork business) and we had the bacon plant there, it just made sense that if we were going to invest somewhere we would invest again in Lagimodiere and start building out our pre-cooked bacon business out of that plant,” he said.
All of the pork bellies used in the bacon production will come from the Brandon plant.
Stewart said pre-cooked bacon production capacity was getting harder to find from third party operations and he said that it is likely to become more pronounced as the demand for the product is expected to continue to increase.
Maple Leaf acquired that facility in 1997 when it bought Burns Meat. Since then it has had a couple of major expansions such that it is now the company’s main ham and bacon production facility.
The expansion includes the most modern state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment and will turn the Winnipeg plant into the company’s Bacon Centre of Excellence with the capacity to expand to meet the demand.
The workforce there has also grown substantially over the years and after the pre-cooked bacon line is fully up and running it will rival the Brandon operation for employment with close to 2,000 people. Brandon’s workforce is currently around 2,100.
“It was never close to the size of our Brandon operation, but it’s getting closer,” Stewart said.
With a workforce of 4,000 in the province, not counting the people who work in hog production — close to 50 per cent of the hogs Maple Leaf slaughters in Brandon come from hog barns that Maple Leaf also owns — Manitoba has been a good place for Maple Leaf Foods.
The company also acquired an existing plant on Paquin Road in the St. Boniface Industrial Park in 2019 and has been doing construction and preparing it for an opening by the end of the year. It will be a packaging plant for its value-added fresh pork business and will employ over 100 people when fully operational.
“It has been fantastic,” Stewart said of the company’s activities in the province.
The feeling is probably mutual, as the province is investing about $1.9 million through the Industry Expansion Program to support skills training over a two year period.
Jon Reyes, Manitoba’s minister of economic development and jobs said, they are always open to conversation with business to help them grow especially during these uncertain times.
“Any time we can help companies invest in Manitoba and create employment it is good for the province,” Reyes said. “If we are going to recover we have to grow.”
The jobs Maple Leaf is creating may not be sexy tech-sector positions, but they do come with some of the best wages and benefits in the industry, according to Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Canada Local 832.
Workers at the Lagimodiere plant ratified a new contract at the beginning of the year that takes them to 2025.
Traeger said workers there receive pensions, dental and health care and good vacation schedules along with good wages.
“Our members are pretty excited,” he said. “We have a good relationship with Maple Leaf Foods. They treat our members extremely well.”
The union also just signed its first collective agreement with the workers at the packaging plant on Paquin Road late last month. That five-year agreement includes wages and benefits similar to the agreement at the Lagimodiere plant.
Stewart said many new hires have already taken place and the company is giving itself time to ramp up production in what he said is a complex operation.
“The building is jammed with equipment,” he said, including microwaves for the cooking, a smokehouse and slicing equipment.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.