Stretching and Growing
by James Dudlicek

Two-year plant expansion project helps Oakhurst Dairy keep up with demand.

School was back in session for less than a week in Portland, Maine, and Oakhurst Dairy’s plant on Forest Avenue was going full tilt, cranking out the company’s new 10-ounce plastic bottles just launched for its school customers.
Amid the flurry of activity during Dairy Field’s late-August visit, members of the Bennett family (who own and operate Oakhurst) are dashing around and fielding phone calls to make sure every last bottle in the new line gets to where it needs to be.
The 10-ounce line is just the latest on a long list of improvements made over the past two years at the plant, which has provided Mainers with the state’s leading brand of milk for more than eight decades. It began with the need for more space to handle booming business.
“Basically, we ran out of space,” recalls William Bennett, executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We were functioning out of one cooler that we built in 1989. Five years ago, it was already way too small for our needs, and five years ago is when we were seeing the biggest growth in our company.”
After searching for locations elsewhere around Portland for a new cold storage/distribution center, the company finally decided to keep it at the Forest Avenue site and commissioned design proposals for the expansion. “In preparation for that, knowing that we were going to finally increase our storage capacity by over 100 percent, we also revamped out entire filling operation,” Bennett says. “Every single filler was either moved or replaced within a two-year period.”
First came a new half-pint filler, with a capacity of 360 containers per minute that more than doubled the output of the 25-year-old machine it replaced. “We got rid of our oldest filler, which was a quart filler. Our half-gallon filler became our quart filler, our old gallon filler became our half-gallon filler and we bought a new gallon filler,” Bennett explains. “We stretched out the whole filler room. Every filler other than the pint filler was either moved or replaced.”
So, over the course of two years, every filler was taken out of service and either replaced or retooled for a new purpose. “The end result was that we increased our capacities on all our fillers so we could produce more per hour, allowing us to keep up with sales growth, which at the time we started all this was double-digit,” Bennett says. “And, we could fill these coolers up to their full capacity and perhaps reduce our work week to a four-day production week, which we did accomplish last winter except for around theholidays. We went from a six-day production week to four days.”
That went back up to five when schools started needed milk again for the fall semester, but a return to a four-day week is expected, Bennett says.  
The new $8 million, five-story cooler, along with two new raw milk receiving bays, opened with much fanfare in July 2005. Together with the 1989 cooler, the plant can hold up to three days worth of finished product. Bennett recalls how trucks often used to have to wait for the fillers to complete orders, while other times production had to stop for lack of storage space. “We’ve always got enough so when orders come in, we’re ready,” he says.
Cased milk products come off the filler lines and into the cooler, where they’re put away in the five-story rack system in 54-case blocks. Products in corrugated boxes or shrink wrap — such as pint drinks, sour cream, whipped cream and cottage cheese — are palletized and stored on the fourth and fifth levels of the cooler. Finished products are brought down to the truck docks on the first floor for shipping.
“Everything on the fourth and fifth levels used to be stored about a mile from here,” Bennett says. “Building this allowed us to get out of there, and cut down our rent and transportation costs.”
Getting IT Right
The intricate flow of product through the cooler racks is coordinated by a computerized warehouse management system that tracks inventory through to its destination. Pickers follow orders on hand-held computers or a “pick-to-light” system; drivers have printers on their trucks to deliver their day’s orders.
The Bennetts give high praise to Paul Connolly, Oakhurst’s vice president of information technology services, for devising the system along with other high-tech operational enhancements.
“Our whole IT system that he co-developed with many different partners during his tenure of six years completely changed that whole world for us,” says Althea Bennett McGirr, director of customer relations. “Now we are really in today’s world of IT. We have systems that [five years ago] we didn’t even know existed nor did we think we needed. I feel that’s a real innovation in itself, having someone in-house that has that type of skill and foresight to figure out what we need now, and he’s always looking down the road.”
Bennett adds: “A really strong IT department in a company our size enables us to compete with some of the big guys where we might not be able to otherwise, or it would be at a huge expense. Paul designed a ‘pick-to-light’ system, which is not a new system to the industry, but he was able to do most of it in-house and save a bundle of money, and come up with a system that works very well. The security system, same deal. We could’ve gone out and spent a lot more money, having somebody else give us a turnkey operation. He designed the system and installed it with the help of some outsiders, but at a lot lower cost.
“I think that’s a big plus for us. Having someone like Paul in-house enables us to keep up with the demands of any customer, on a par with and sometimes on a higher level than the big boys.”
Meanwhile …
The new double-bay receiving area basically doubled raw milk offloading capabilities. Bennett says the previous bay was too short to accommodate both tractor and trailer, which had to be unhooked for unloading. “We can get trucks in and out faster and increase our volume,” he says. Basic testing of samples can now be done at receiving to avoid a lengthy run up to the second-floor lab before offloading can begin.
Pasteurization is computer controlled, with the newer of the HTST systems used for most fluid products; the smaller unit handles cream and juices.
Supplementing the new fillers is a gravity caser, which Bennett explains is “energy-free” compared to the powered caser it replaced. To accommodate the new 10-ounce plastic line, Bennett says, “we actually replaced the caser, which was a standard quart caser, with a quart/10-ounce caser, which is something invented by the company we gave that project to — Westfalia, actually Deam. That’s been working for the last week and a half, and it’s pretty innovative. I don’t know of anybody else who’s doing that.”
The area formerly occupied by raw receiving is now home to tanks for cooling and cream storage, plus some dry storage and the maintenance department with its eight full-time employees. “This is the only large area we have left for expansion of our filler line,” Bennett says. “If we ever get into, say, UHT down the road, this is where we’ll do it.”
In the case room, plastic milk crates are unloaded and washed for reuse. Oakhurst is almost religious in its commitment to using only its own cases. “We segregate them and bring them back to our competitors,” Bennett says. “We work with our competitors to get ours back.”
He estimates Oakhurst spends about a quarter of a million dollars annually on cases, which have increasingly become a target of thieves for the rising scrap value of their petroleum-based plastic content. “Cases are creeping up on $3 apiece,” Bennett notes.
Gallon and half-gallon bottles are blow-molded on site in an operation run by the Consolidated Container Co. in an Oakhurst-owned building. Plastic 10-ounce and pint bottles are made offsite and descrambled at the plant. The blow-molding operation runs around the clock to keep up with demand, though Bennett notes any over-capacity is sold to other processors.
For Their People
Along the way, management has not overlooked the concerns of the work force that makes everything at Oakhurst run smoothly. Safety, of course, is a foremost concern, right down to the new safety harnesses for upper-level product pickers that were designed with input from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“Over the last four to six years, we’ve moved away from the safety committee mentality that was so pervasive during the ’80s and ’90s, and we’ve moved more to an individual responsibility for safety,” explains Joseph Hyatt, vice president of human resources. “We began to accomplish that by meeting with and training supervisory-level people on a weekly basis, probably 35 weeks out of each year. Since the supervisory area is where you have the greatest impact on employees, that where we focused.
“Since then, we’ve had the luxury of promoting some of those folks into management positions, which really solidified the personal responsibility so that safety was no longer segregated as a separate item — it’s simply how we do everything.”
Ergonomics also is a concern. Hyatt cites an example of which Oakhurst is particularly proud.
“We have been effective in accomplishing the elimination of shoulder tears. We brought together a doctor, a physical therapist, a personal trainer and our case management company, and examined why we were having so many shoulder tears,” he says. “We were able to find a small exercise that the route sales guys could do that takes all of about a minute a day, and since that was implemented — in conjunction with an incentive program for folks who go to a gym at least twice a week, where we pay for the membership and also give them a bonus at the end of the year if they do participate and prove it — we haven’t had a shoulder injury of that nature in four years in that department.”
All the improvements at Oakhurst have gone a long way toward ensuring new customers, Bennett says.
“It’s the sort of thing Jim [Lesser, director of marketing] and John [Bennett, vice president of sales] can turn around and sell to our customers, and new customers in particular: we can get there on time with everything you need,” he says. “That’s something we couldn’t do two years ago. Our sales force was handcuffed. They’d go in to get a new customer and walk out the door on how we’re going to serve this new customer: if we’re having a hard time now, how are we going to get new business. We’ve taken those handcuffs off now so that we can go sell and pick up new business.”
Oakhurst Dairy
Plant at a Glance
Location: Portland, Maine
Opened: 1921; expanded several times over the years.
Size: 75,000 square feet.
Employees: 235
Products made: Milk, cream, juices, drinks, cultured products, ice cream mix.
Capacity: 120,000 gallons daily.
Processing: Two HTST systems, 10,000 gallons/hour.
Filling: One gallon plastic filler, one half-gallon plastic filler, one quart plastic filler, one pint/10-ounce plastic filler, 1 half-pint paper filler, one bag-in-box filler and one sour cream filler.
Storage: Four 40,000 gallon raw tanks; 13 pasteurized tanks totaling 157,000 gallons; 55,140 square feet in new cooler opened in 2005.