May 27 • 01:56 AM

Pickle packin' success story

Imlay's Vlasic plant saluted by parent company for record production year

Vlasic employees sort through pickles for quality control as conveyors run in the Imlay City plant. The company is thriving despite the economic downturn. photo by Tom Wearing.

March 24, 2010
IMLAY CITY — With a major expansion nearly complete and record production numbers realized in 2009, officials at Pinnacle Foods (the maker of Vlasic pickles) are poised for more of the same.

Brad Stahlecker, director of pickle manufacturing at the Imlay City plant on Blacks Corners Rd., says the company has been spared of the economic malaise shared by so many other Michigan manufacturers.

He attributes the company's success to a strong local agricultural base, great products, outstanding employees and a reinvigorated commitment to "green opportunities."

Pointing to Vlasic's commitment to recycling, energy efficiency and a shift from over-the-road to intermodal (via train) product distribution, Stahlecker says the company is on track for more success.

"We had a record year in terms of production," he says. "We have the number-one product in our market and the dedication and experience of our employees. Those things are allowing us to continue to grow even during the worst of times."

The decline of the auto industry and its peripheral job losses has afforded Vlasic the opportunity to attract the best available employees.

"We've hired a lot of people from the auto industry," says Stahlecker, "for both white collar and production positions. People come to work here from as far away as Saginaw, Flint and Detroit.

He adds that Vlasic employs about 300 year-round employees. That number swells to more than 600 during the "green" season, which runs from mid-April through mid-November.

To ensure sufficient employment levels for the upcoming season, the Imlay City plant will host another Job Fair on Wed., April 14, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

"We are very committed to providing jobs for the local community," Stahlecker continues. "The term of our average employee is more than 15 years. We think that says a lot about the stability of this business and this particular site."

The plant's success has not gone overlooked by Vlasic's parent company, the Blackstone Group.

Citing the record production levels, along with meeting corporate standards for quality, efficiency and safety, Blackstone recently acknowledged the Imlay City site as the "Most Improved" plant within Pinnacle Foods.

While happy to celebrate the plant's successes, Stahlecker says challenges remain for Vlasic and other producers in the current economy.

"Our energy and transportation costs are significant," he says. "They are a very large expense in our business and we're working aggressively to manage these costs.

"This is a very complex and sophisticated operation," he adds. "It requires a lot of technology, dedication and experience to run it all efficiently."

From a purely business standpoint, Stahlecker says the company's recent investment in 500 1,000-bushel storage tanks is evidence of the company's longterm commitment to Imlay City.

"It's a rededication to the business and to this site," he says. "It's a very good sign for us and for the community."

Stahlecker says Vlasic's annual payroll is more than $14 million "and growing," adding that the company pays out about $500,000 in property taxes and $1.9 million in payroll taxes.

He says the company's current goal is more investment and continued implementation of its "lean manufacturing" philosophy.

"That's our big push right now," says Stahlecker. "We've invested $4-5 million in the past few years, and we don't expect that to stop."

Despite the economic downturn, Stahlecker says the pickle industry is not merely surviving, but thriving. He credits the Imlay plant's accessibility to local and outstate growers as an added benefit.

"Local agriculture is very important to us," says Stahlecker. "Michigan is the largest pickle-producing state in the country and it's one of the reasons the plant is located here.

"We spend about $13 million on crop and about 25 percent of that is Michigan grown," he says, adding that Vlasic supplies local food chains such as Burger King, Dairy Queen and Subway.

Stahlecker is also pleased that the company has been able to hash out a new contract with its union, Local 87 of the United Dairy and Bakery Workers, an AFL-CIO affiliate.

"A new four-year contract was just ratified last week," he says. "It includes across-the-board wage increases.

"We're now looking forward to what we anticipate will be a long and bright future for Vlasic Foods in Imlay City."

Editor's note: Well-known for its brand icon, the Vlasic "stork," Vlasic has been a household name for U.S. families since the early 1940s. From Kosher dill spears, to relishes, sweet, dill, bread and butter and stacker-style pickles, Vlasic remains the nation's largest pickle producer. Besides Vlasic, other well-known products owned by Pinnacle Foods include: Duncan Hines, Mrs. Butterworth, Green Giant, Brooks, Aunt Jemimah, Lander's, Van de Kamp, Mrs. Paul's, Hungry-Man, Armour, Swanson and Open Pit. The company's most recent acquisition is Birds Eye Foods.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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