Last chapter in Gallaher's story as factory machines fall silent
After decades as one of Ballymena's biggest employers, the former Gallaher tobacco factory closed for the last time yesterday.
Owner JTI announced in 2014 that it was moving its long-standing Co Antrim operation to Poland, resulting in the loss of 860 jobs.
At its peak, more than 2,000 people worked on the 100 acre JTI Gallaher site.
The employer had enjoyed a reputation for generous wages and providing 'a job for life', often through more than one generation in a family.
The few remaining employees finished their day yesterday at the Lisnafillan factory which will now be taken over by the bus giant Wright Group in December.
Pat McCallion (65) spent 42 years working in JTI and Gallaher's - spending most of his time in security, as well as 20 years as his trade union's shop steward.
"It's sad, production has ceased and now the machines will be packed up and moved to Poland," he said.
The economic impact, he said, was yet to hit Ballymena, with JTI workers getting "probably one of the best redundancy packages in Northern Ireland, if not the UK".
Although many have since found other jobs, he said finding the same level of pay elsewhere was virtually impossible.
Today, Mr McCallion is chairman of the Ballymena Credit Union as well as a trustee of the Gallaher Trust, a £5m charitable legacy left behind by JTI to focus on job creation and skills development.
"I would say there is apprehension in the town as to what the future holds. But on the other hand, you can't look back, you have to look forward," he said.
"There's so much going on in Ballymena trying to create employment, far more than people probably give credit for."
Ballymena was dealt a double blow after its other main employer, tyre producer Michelin, announced it was closing in 2018.
Helen Doherty, owner of Razors Barbershop in Galgorm, knew many family members and friends who spent their entire careers at JTI Gallaher.
"It's one of these places you thought was always going to be there and anyone who got into Gallaher was lucky because they were set for life," she said.
"It is sad, obviously if the money's not there all the businesses in Ballymena are going to suffer."
Ballymena newsagent Eugene Diamond added: "The town is badly affected by it. They were one of the biggest contributors to the town's commercial end over the last 50 years, without a shadow of a doubt."
"Nobody paid wages like Gallaher. It's going to be one of those things that affects the town for years to come."
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Paul Reid, thanked JTI for being a "fantastic" employer through the years.
"There's no doubt this is a sad day, but we're hopeful we can bring new employment and jobs to our borough, with the top priority in tourism," he said. "It is going to have a knock-on effect for those in the supply chain who will equally feel the pinch."
A JTI spokesperson said yesterday: "JTI would like to extend its deepest thanks to all current and past members of the Lisnafillan factory team for their dedication over the years and their continued commitment and professionalism until the ver y end of production.
"We would like to wish them and their families well for the future."