Pennfield Crew Upbeat Since Cargill Purchase

8/17/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

MOUNT JOY, Pa. — Being bought by a family-owned company has probably helped the family-owned Pennfield Corp. with the transition to new ownership — even though the new parent company is the nation’s largest privately held firm.

Cargill, the worldwide giant known for livestock feeds and other food-related products, bought Pennfield in January for $9.8 million. The buy included Pennfield’s plants in Mount Joy and Martinsburg, Pa.

“They have a lot of the same values that we do,” Jen Horn, Pennfield’s administrative team leader and a member of the company’s founding family, said of Cargill during an open house last Wednesday.

The multinational corporation retained about 70 of Pennfield’s employees and did not transfer any Cargill staff to Pennfield’s office. The only employee Cargill has added to the Mount Joy plant is an assistant plant manager in training, Horn said.

Pennfield experienced little turnover during the acquisition. The company lost no office or mill employees but did lose one or two sales reps, Horn said.

Horn said Cargill recognizes the value of the Pennfield brand and has left the company’s product lines essentially intact.

“They didn’t come in and say, You’re going to sell these Cargill products,’ ” she said.

At the time of the deal, Rob Sheffer, group director for Cargill’s Northeast region, said the acquisition would provide Cargill “with additional capabilities and opportunities to serve new customer segments and enhance our offerings for existing customers in the region.”

In June, Cargill did announce that it would reorganize the product lines of Pennfield’s equine feeds but would keep the formulas the same.

Cargill has also kept Pennfield’s custom products, such as its flagship metered delivery service, Horn said.

For metered delivery, Pennfield sends feed trucks to farms to fill up bins with calf or horse feed. The farmer pays for only the amount of feed used and does not have to pay for bags.

Being bought by a giant company has been “exactly the opposite” of the nightmare many people feared, Horn said.

While Horn expected her workers would learn from Cargill, she said she was impressed that the folks at Cargill “were interested in learning from us” as well.

Cargill has also provided money for plant improvements and safety upgrades. Quality assurance testing has changed a bit, too.

“They stepped it up a little,” including having a Cargill lab in Indiana double-check the results of on-site testing, said Randy Adams, the plant manager.

Cargill is also replacing all of the plant’s control systems, he said.

That investment is bringing back once-struggling Pennfield, Horn said.

Three years of $3 million-plus net losses led the company to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October.

After Cargill bought two of the company’s plants, Pennfield spun off a third plant, in Susquehanna County, to Keystone Mills, Horn said.

The Aug. 14 open house at its plant along Route 230 was intended to showcase the company’s sense of renewal. A large crowd was treated to lunch and tours of the plant.

Leading one of the tours, Adams said his team can unload a full truck of corn in 15 minutes.

Employees work on only three floors of the towering building. Most of the height of the plant consists of tubes that allow the manufacturing processes to use the force of gravity to move feed components, Adams said.

Mike Godfrey, a Pennfield employee since 1978, demonstrated how the bagging machine works by sewing a strip on the top of the bag, which allows it to be pulled open easily. The machine can close 13 to 14 bags per minute.

Pennfield has two crimpers, which produce flaked oats and barley, and super-flaked corn. The corn is soaked for hours to soften, then steamed, rolled, cooled to reduce its water content and sent through the flaker. Molasses, oil and other flavorings are added during the process.

The factory also has a pellet mill, which combines raw materials into tightly compacted chunks.

Formulating a pellet “is an art, and we’ve made it a science,” Adams said.

Some combinations of materials will not stick together, so the Pennfield staff has to evaluate each pellet combination before mass-producing it.

Mill operators use a half-dozen computer screens to distribute and track the amounts of each ingredient.

Vitamins and drugs are monitored especially closely. They are weighed before and after a batch.

“We take our time with those,” mill operator Zachary Schimp said. These additives can cause problems if mixed improperly and cannot usually be reused if they are messed up.

“You didn’t know that so much work went into feed, did you?” a mother on the tour asked her young daughter.

Though Pennfield was producing high-quality products before the takeover, gaining Cargill’s knowledge and expertise has improved operations, Adams said.

“It’s a bonus for the dairy industry in Lancaster County,” he said.

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