Hormel expands with Dubuque plant

Published 6:58 am Monday, March 29, 2010

Hormel Foods Corp. will celebrate the grand opening of its new plant in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday. Progressive Processing is the first new Hormel plant built from the ground up in more than a decade.

“The plant is performing well,” said Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger. “It’s probably somewhat ahead of schedule in terms of the typical ramp up and some of the challenges you have in running brand new lines.”

The plant opened around Jan. 25, and it’s already producing the microwaveable meals Hormel Compleats.

Iowa state leaders have been invited to attend the grand opening, and Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Chet Culver may attend the event to celebrate the plant that cost about $80 million to build.

“It’s just a great day for our employees down there,” Ettinger said.

Ettinger said it will be the first time he’ll be in the finished plant, and he said he’s excited to tour the facility and meet the employees.

Plant Manager Mark Zelle said the plant is operating at full strength.

“We’re still at a learning curve, but yet each day I believe we build a little bit more,” Zelle said.

When starting a new plant, Zelle said the new employees have to be trained as though they know nothing about working in such a plant. He said they have to start at the ground floor for food handing and food safety.

“Each week, we’ve built,” he said. “We’ve increased not only productivity and our output, I think we’ve increased our overall associate knowledge base.”

Zelle, who’s been with the company for about 30 years, said he’s thankful for the opportunity he has at the Progressive Processing. Zelle had previously worked at a Hormel plant in Stockton, Calif. Before that, Zelle worked at Hormel’s plant in Beloit, Wis.

Complementing compleats

The compleats franchise had been growing before the announcement to build the Dubuque plant, but Ettinger said the line has slowed during the recession. In response, Ettinger said Hormel will likely add a canning line to the plant.

“You have to modify to the times,” Ettinger said. “Compleats will still be a mainstay item for the plant, but it will at some point be complemented by another item as well.”

No final decision has been made on what canning line that will be.

The plant currently has about 90 employees, and that number will increase to about 200 when a canning line is selected. Ettinger said the company will select a line by early fall, and then the positions will likely be in place by the end of 2010.

Recession

Ettinger said the plant is probably one of the few new plants opening in the U.S. right now, and he’s pleased Hormel was able to complete the plant after the economy took a down turn.

“From the day we broke ground to the day the plant was completed, obviously a lot changed in the general economy,” Ettinger said. “At a broad level, we were pleased we were able to maintain the investment and go forward with building it.”

Progressive Processing opened following a decline in factory jobs in Iowa. The Iowa Manufacturers Register reported Iowa lost 11,072 factory jobs and 222 plants between January 2009 and January 2010.

“Hopefully it will be a nice shot in the arm for the Dubuque community and for Iowa in general,” Ettinger said.

Zelle said some local manufacturing companies have closed in Dubuque, and he said the city has been very aggressive in getting the company.

Zelle said they’ve had applications from a number of states, and they have employees coming from as far as 40 miles away to the plant.

Hormel isn’t new to Dubuque, as the company previously worked in marketing for the Dubuque Packing Company. While Hormel’s home state is Minnesota, Hormel has a number of plants in Iowa in Aveda, Knoxville, Algona and Eldridge.

Though a number of factors went into selecting Dubuque, the town’s close proximity — about 30 miles — to Hormel distribution centers in Eldridge was a key factor.

“We wanted to be able to get the products quickly out of the plant and into the distribution channel,” Ettinger said.

Ettinger said the compleats line was flat in the last quarter, but that was an improvement over the decline the product saw the year before. He said company officials are positive there’s room to grow.

Sustainability

The Dubuque plant has a number of green features, like skylights to add natural light, and heated water is utilized for multiple purposes.

“This was a chance to allow our team to design a plant with many of these modern sustainability concepts in the forefront,” Ettinger said.

The plant has 216 skylights for natural light in the plant, and Zelle said they also have sensors that turn on light fixtures when necessary.

“So not only is it a sustainable type of energy savings, it also is very nice as a plant working condition for our associates,” Zelle said.

The plant uses a great deal of water during production, and that hot water is reused to heat water for cleaning and sanitation.

The plant’s parking lot is made of concrete and the roof is a white rubberized roof, which are both highly reflective.

“Not only is it something that’s energy efficient and sustainable, it also looks aesthetically very pleasing,” Zelle said.

The plant uses about 25 percent less energy than a comparable facility, and Ettinger said the company will get a return on the added costs of a sustainable building in a few years.

Hormel said the company is studying these measures at the Dubuque plant to see what kind of measures could potentially be initiated at other plants.

“I would expect that we will be able to take advantage of some of the lessons learned in this facility in our other facilities,” Ettinger said.

Hormel has applied to become certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. While many office building are LEED certified, Ettinger said he believes they’re the first refrigerated manufacturing plants to attain such status.

The company anticipates the plant’s LEED certification will be finalized by summer.

Safety

Zelle said he likes to focus on personal safety and product safety, and the plant already has committees dedicated to achieving both.

Clean facilities are a key part of that, and Zelle said it’s also important to teach employees to use hair nets, gloves and other sanitation tools.

Zelle said the plant utilizes state of the art sorting equipment to ensure that no foreign objects are in the food. Peas and carrots and all pasta are passed through a machine that separates stems, wood, stones or cardboard from the shipping process.

Shaker screens are used with powder ingredients, and high strength magnets are used to remove any iron or metal items. The compleats are then x-rayed, which detects foreign materials.

It’s also important for compleats to be properly sealed, and Zelle said each tray is passed under high speed cameras that can detect if the food is breaking that seal.

Austin

While the Dubuque plant is more than three hours away from Austin, Ettinger said the plant’s effects will be felt in Austin. Employees at the corporate office work to design compleats.

Ettinger said the Hormel Foundation, which owns a large portion of the Hormel Foods, benefits when Hormel is successful. Dollars earned in Dubuque will filter into the Austin community through the Hormel Foundation.