Legend has it that St. George slew a dragon in the Middle East. But in St. George, Utah, Wells’ Dairy Inc. is on a continuing crusade to bolster its presence in the Western market with a strategically located ice cream manufacturing facility that’s Dairy Field Reports’ 2009 Plant of the Year.
Le Mars, Iowa-based Wells’ Dairy launched construction of the $55 million facility in mid-2002. Since the plant began production in September 2003, the company has pushed its sales beyond the $1 billion mark, helped by growing sales of its popular Blue Bunny branded products throughout the Southwest.
“The primary purpose of the facility is for high-altitude production while also providing a manufacturing facility and freezer to supply customer demands as we look to any possible future westward expansion,” says Ken Kaneversky, plant manager.
In the far southwest corner of Utah, two hours from Las Vegas and four hours from Salt Lake City, St. George’s location allows the company to cut its distribution time by half to the West Coast. Further, the town’s elevation of nearly 2,700 feet above sea level provides conditions perfectly suited to packaging ice cream for high-altitude western markets, lessening the possibility of product damage due to changes in barometric pressure.
In the six years it’s been in operation, Wells’ St. George plant has added another filling line and expanded its freezer capacity by 20% to meet the growing demand for Blue Bunny products.
“We have grown from the original 25 employees in 2003 to 94 employees today,” Kaneversky says. “Productivity and storage capacity have dramatically improved over the years, delivering back to the organization solid performance. The St. George Ice Cream Plant has been very successful in attracting and retaining high-performing professionals to join our team.”
While not as vast as the massive South Plant back home in Le Mars, where Wells operates two manufacturing facilities, the St. George plant – in the city’s Fort Pierce Industrial Park – is nimble and flexible, with a skilled work force dedicated to safety, quality and continuous improvement. In the high-stakes game of frozen desserts, dominated by a handful of major players, the St. George plant is an indispensible part of Wells’ Dairy’s growth strategy.
“All of our employees were excited to hear the news,” Kaneversky says about winning DFR’s Plant of the Year award. “They all work very hard at achieving excellence each and every day. As we benchmark against ourselves and the industry, this award is a tremendous validation of all the continuous improvement efforts we’ve made since the plant opened and as we move into the future.”
The basicsNear the gateway to Utah’s Zion National Park, the St. George plant draws milk from Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah, and recently started receiving some supply from Oregon and Idaho. The two-lane, brick-paved receiving bay hosts up to 10 or more tankers a day.
“We typically have two trucks at a time,” says Jerico Donovan, production supervisor, noting that milk is received in one lane and sweeteners in the other.
The receiving lab performs all testing before milk is offloaded. This also is the nerve center of the plant. “The whole processing area is run from this central point – CIP, pasteurization,” Donovan explains.
The plant is divided into raw and pasteurized areas. At one end are eight 6,000-gallon and four 3,000-gallon raw tanks, plus three tanks providing 30,000 gallons of storage for liquid sugar, fructose and corn syrup. Three batch tanks offer nearly 9,000 gallons of capacity.
“The plant was designed for growth,” Donovan says, noting the open area between the packaging lines and the eight 3,000-gallon pasteurized tanks on the far side of the building. The space is paved with dairy brick, ready for the day these areas currently devoted to storage will be used for processing. “This plant was designed in a modular fashion,” Kaneversky says, gesturing toward the knockout panels in the walls in the direction of future expansion.
Various raw materials fill a staging area near the filling room with its three lines. “We normally run two lines at a time,” Donovan explains. “We can run multiple products on each line. Two of the lines are mobile [the 56-ounce line is stationary], so we can move them around. I think that’s unique, a flexibility most plants don’t have.”
Running on the day of DFR’s late-October visit are scrounds and 1-gallon/1-pint tubs. “We run four separate fillers on this line – it’s our most flexible line,” Donovan says. “We have three each on the other two.”
The tubs are shrink-wrapped in bundles of two while the 56-ounce scrounds are wrapped in bundles of four before all are conveyed to the hardener. Extra conveyor sets are on hand to be used as needed for the day’s run. “Because we have the flexibility to run these lines at any one time, we can adjust conveyance to meet our needs,” Donovan says. “We’ll arrange our factory to accommodate demand each day.”
Lift-up sections to allow movement through conveyors have replaced stairs over them. “That was a big step to improve safety,” Donovan notes.
Another recent project moved process piping to shadow boards closer to the lines, to expedite the process of changing out fillers. “It’s a large number of changeovers, so this allows us to improve changeover times,” Donovan says. “Set-up and changeovers cost money, so we want to minimize that.” In addition, plant crews added larger, color-coded gauges to enhance visibility for operators.
Meanwhile, quality control includes random product checks on the plant floor. “When we have a flavor with a revel in it, we take a spoon and scoop through it to make sure the right amount goes through the entire package,” says Paul Valenzuela, plant controller.
After spending four hours in the hardener, finished product moves to the 5,000-pallet-space freezer, where it’s held at -20 degrees F while awaiting shipment.
“We try to keep things as simple and efficient as possible,” says Richard Streker, freezer manager. “The additional storage we added this January is the flow racks. We can use flow racking for high-volume items. It’s improved our efficiency quite a bit.”
Products are manually racked with fork trucks, which also pick orders that are palletized, wrapped on a turntable and shipped out through the freezer’s three loadout doors.
“Our people are trained to look for quality defects. In football terms, they’re the safeties. Our focus in the freezer is accuracy. That’s our quality measurement. If we do these things well, we’ll be successful.”
SQDCPlant managers credit much of their facility’s success to the sense of ownership demonstrated by the work force.
“Rather than operators, we have ‘line owners,’ who are responsible for the progress of each line,” Kaneversky says. “Every line has an owner, whether the manufacturing side or the maintenance side, to make sure they meet pre-established requirements.”
Each owner is responsible for making sure their domain meets goals for SQDC, or safety, quality, delivery and cost. “Each production line has its own results board to track their SQDC,” Donovan notes.
Supervisors express great pride in their team hitting the mark on each one of those areas.
“Employee safety is of utmost importance in everything we do and is at the forefront of every professional that works in the plant,” Kaneversky says. “In short, the St. George Ice Cream Plant is a community where safety is based upon personal responsibility for oneself and a deep concern for others. It is also important to note that safety is employee driven – driven from the bottom-up. We have a great safety record and intend to keep it that way.”
Streker adds: “We’re most proud of this team going over 700 days without a reportable incident,” noting the two-year anniversary of that achievement was shortly before Thanksgiving. Streker and his colleagues are similarly proud of the plant’s exception (operational error) rate, which to date is less than one-half of 1%.
Regarding quality, “we take it personally,” Kaneversky says. “We have a moral obligation to ourselves, our family, our team and our customers and consumers.” Operators are expected to bring any concerns to their supervisors’ attention, and every team member has the ability to stop the line for food safety or quality concerns, he explains.
The St. George plant is Level 3 certified for the SQF (Safe Quality Food) program recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative and managed by the Food Marketing Institute. “Beyond the formal SQF certification, we are committed to excellence,” Kaneversky says, “and that is all about quality.”
Wells’ supplier certification program includes a document review (insurance, pure food guarantees, specifications, FDA registration, etc.) along with the completion of a food safety questionnaire. In addition, the prospective supplier is required to provide a copy of its most recent third-party food safety audit along with corrective actions. To help improve surveillance and to verify the effectiveness of the supplier’s third-party audits, Wells has implemented a risk-based verification site visit program.
“Suppliers of raw materials play a key role in Wells’ Dairy’s ability to produce safe, high-quality products on a consistent basis,” Kaneversky says. “Identifying, approving and monitoring our suppliers limits risk and provides the elements needed for efficient, consistent operations. The practice of approving suppliers and the discipline of purchasing only from approved suppliers is a key component of the Wells’ Dairy quality management system.”
“Delivery” is how the plant measures attainment of goals versus its schedule. “We’ve raised it 10% in the past year,” Valenzuela says. “We’re over 92, 93% every week.”
Meanwhile, the plant holds quarterly contests between teams and gives awards to those achieving the greatest cost savings. “The factory has done extremely well controlling costs,” Kaneversky says. “We’ve broken records the last two years.”
Kaneversky informs team members about plant and company news in “Ken’s Korner,” a monthly newsletter he posts on the employee bulletin board. The newsletter is displayed near the management’s own action register, “so the team can hold the leadership accountable,” for their responsibilities as well, he notes.
Above all is posted the plant’s mission statement: safely making and delivering quality ice cream right the first time. “That sums up what we do and why we do it,” Kaneversky says.
To that end, the St. George plant uses a self-managed model of training that encompasses safety, quality, technical and leadership roles. “Front-line professionals have a broad spectrum of responsibilities,” Kaneversky says. “Employees are also accountable for understanding their training needs, reaching out to experts in the plant to receive training and documenting that training has been completed. This personal accountability motivates employees to become better at what they do each day. Such accountability in turn allows management to focus more on continuous improvement efforts at the plant helping St. George become one of the best managed manufacturing facilities in the country.”
The company has turned basic training into professional development. “It has changed employees’ attitudes,” says Lesley Bartholomew, employee communications manager. “They see it as a career.”
In fact, the folks at St. George see this as the plant’s most significant innovation. “The St. George facility has a very evolved and unique self-directed training program that allows those in the operations and freezer teams to advance in their knowledge and professional development at an accelerated pace,” Kaneversky says. ”In the end, the teams are extremely well cross-trained allowing for unprecedented flexibility. The innovative structure and depth of professional development allows for the multiple product lines to run with the same teams. It is also notable that traditional manufacturing barriers and structure between operations and support departments are nearly nonexistent.
“Maintenance is cross-trained in some of the traditional manufacturing operations and operations personnel often cross the lines of what are often traditional maintenance functions – again, driving flexibility and enhanced knowledge, performance and bottom-line results.”
Bigger and betterContinuous improvement is a constant challenge for the St. George team. “We operate in a very competitive market where what we do today is simply not good enough for tomorrow,” Kaneversky says. “We benchmark largely against ourselves while keeping an eye on our competition. Our focus is to improve each day and to look back only for sake of reference. Our eye is focused on constant and continual improvement.”
It’s apparent that Wells’ Dairy expects more great things from its St. George plant, though the company declined to divulge any specific capital expansion plans.
“We serve an important role in the growth of the company as we continue to look for westward expansion opportunities,” Kaneversky says. “In addition, with our relatively small size and nimbleness, we can share our learnings with our larger manufacturing facilities.”
And by the looks of things, continuing its dedication to quality will allow St. George to keep pace with its brawnier Hawkeye brethren. “The more world-class we become,” Donovan says, “the better we are at delivering superior results to the organization, to our customers and to our consumers.”
HistoryWells’ Dairy Inc. was founded in 1913 by Fred H. Wells when he purchased a horse, a delivery wagon, a few cans and jars, and the goodwill of the business from Ray Bowers, a dairy farmer in Le Mars, Iowa, all for $250. The original contract granted Wells the milk distribution route and also guaranteed a source of raw milk from Mr. Bower’s herd of milk cows.
Around 1925, Wells and his sons began manufacturing ice cream in Le Mars. In 1927, Fred Wells and his brother, Harry, began a partnership to distribute ice cream in Sioux City, Iowa, about 25 miles south of Le Mars. In 1928, Fairmont Ice Cream purchased the ice cream distribution system in Sioux City from the Wells brothers along with the right to use the Wells name.
Seven years later, the Wells brothers decided to again sell ice cream in Sioux City. No longer able to use their own name, the brothers decided to run a “Name That Ice Cream” contest in the Sioux City Journal. A Sioux City man won the $25 cash prize for submitting the winning entry, Blue Bunny, after noticing how much his son enjoyed the blue bunnies in a department store window at Easter time.
Wells’ Dairy Inc. is now the largest family-owned and managed dairy processor in the United States, distributing Blue Bunny branded items across the country. Wells’ Dairy’s achievements led the Iowa state legislature to declare Le Mars the “Ice Cream Capital of the World” in 1994.
The company operates two ice cream plants in Le Mars, and an ice cream plant in St. George, Utah. More than 2,500 production, sales, office and support personnel make up the Wells’ Dairy family. With its state-of-the-art production facilities, the company is cited by many industry experts as one of the most technically advanced in the industry.
The Blue Bunny Family of Products
Blue Bunny products are sold in supermarkets, foodservice establishments (including restaurants, educational institutions and hospitals), convenience stores, vending outlets (neighborhood ice cream trucks and events) and military commissaries.
Premium packaged ice cream comes in elliptical 56-ounce containers and 8-ounce Personals in a wide array of flavors, some unique to Blue Bunny including Bunny Tracks, Peanut Butter Panic, Super Chunky Cookie Dough and Chocolate Champion.
Premium novelties include such offerings as the Champ Cone and Bomb Pop.
Better-for-you products include the Sweet Freedom no-sugar-added line of packaged ice cream and frozen novelties. In 2009, Blue Bunny launched a new line of frozen yogurt novelties with its Aspen and Sedona products, featuring probiotic frozen yogurt combined with granola.
At A Glance
Wells’ Dairy Inc.
Location: St. George, Utah
History: Broke ground June 2002, opened with two lines in summer ’03, freezer storage expanded January ’09, third line added summer ’09.
Size: 161,000 square feet on 50-acre site.
Products made: Packaged ice cream, sherbet and frozen yogurt.
Total processing capacity: 200 million pounds annually.
Pasteurization: HTST, 30,000 pounds per hour.
Lines: Three, filling 56-ounce squares, 4.5-quart round and square pails, round half-gallon pails, elliptical 48- and 56-ounce containers; six freezers.
Storage capacity: Raw, 60,000 gallons; 28,000 gallons pasteurized; finished goods, 5,000 pallets.