Traditional Manufacturing Values Keep Hormel Ahead of the Pack

One of America’s oldest food processing firms continues to keep its eye on tomorrow. Its 26-year-old Austin, Minn., plant may be the largest in the world.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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 “Top Shelf was ahead of its time,” observes Mike Devine, vice president of operations for Hormel’s Grocery Products division, noting that the product’s microwavable sealed tray package was hidden by a paperboard box during the product’s initial run and restaging. “We reintroduced the packaging concept to consumers and rebranded the product to bear the Compleats name and saw immediate sales growth.”

Today Hormel manufactures the product on two lines at its plant in Rochelle, Ill., and one line in its Atlanta facility. Another line will come onstream in late 2009 at a plant under construction in Dubuque, Iowa.

Bruce Schweitzer

Hormel is rare, too, in that it continues to design and fabricate much of its own processing equipment from Austin. “Research engineering is one of our hidden gems at Hormel,” says Devine.

“We have developed a lot of very successful proprietary equipment,” adds Bruce Schweitzer, vice president of operations for refrigerated foods, noting the application of HPP to ready-to-eat meats. “We have a unique group of engineers who have been able to look at traditional processes non-traditionally.”

Case in point: Hormel eliminated more than 30 “ergonomically terrible manual jobs” when the group automated a packaging step in its pre-cooked bacon operations.

The Austin plant 

The food industry heralded Hormel’s flagship plant in Austin, Minn., even before its opening as a state-of-the-art meat processing facility in 1982. The plant continues to live up to its advance billing. Still reputed to be the largest food processing plant in the world under one roof, live hogs are delivered daily to one part of the plant. 

The plant generates more than one dozen products, including: Always Tender marinated meats, Austin Blues pulled pork & chicken, Cure 81 ham, Di Lusso Genoa, Hormel chunk ham, Homeland hard salami, Hormel Natural Choice sliced Canadian bacon, Hormel pepperoni, Hormel turkey pepperoni, Hormel precooked bacon, Old Smokehouse bacon and the SPAM family of products.

Hormel’s flagship plant in Austin, Minn.

The Austin plant remains an industry benchmark, thanks largely to its ongoing continuous improvement program. “The two areas of paramount importance in our plants are the safety of our employees and the safety of our products,” notes Schweitzer. Hormel’s safety emphasis is manifested in plant design and practice.

“Hallways separate all sections of the plant. Effectively, we have six plants under one roof,” says Austin plant manager Mark Coffey. “That [along with footbaths at entrance and egress areas] is key to controlling cross-contamination from division to division.”

Plant management orients Austin facility employees to its standards and missions through a continuous improvement playbook organized around “The Five Ps”: Principles, People, Process, Product and Performance. Every 12 months, plant personnel review the plant according to playbook guidelines and determine how and where to focus improvement efforts with respect to company vision, mission and values. 

Mark Coffey

Workforce longevity -- more than a quarter of its workers have spent 25 years or more with the company -- factors largely into the plant’s continuous improvement record.  But loyalty has been a two-way street. Hormel has implemented flexible work shift options including a 3-2-2 schedule of three days one week, four the next. Its benefits and profit-sharing plans also have tightened worker bonds to the company.

“We’re proud that the company has voluntarily paid profit sharing to all of our employees since 1938,” says Coffey. “That tells part of the story of why we have so many long-term employees. We take good care of them.”

From Spam to Natural Choice

Showcasing both foundation brands and breakthrough technology, the Austin plant itself is a living testament to Hormel’s success formula of continuous revitalization of products and processes coupled with “outside-the-box” innovation.

Spam, for example, is 70 years old and counting. Like all Hormel production lines, the Spam operations are subjected to continuous improvement efforts, which have elevated production to 1.2 million lbs. per week. That translates into 80 million 12-oz. containers per year.

The Spam operation was central to the Austin plant construction in 1982. In fact, the first thing placed on the site was the existing hydrostatic cooker, installed before there was anything above ground. The plant was literally built around it.

With steam rising up its seven-story height, the cooker remains an awesome throwback to a bygone Hormel era. Product serpentines through the continuous flow cooker, entering on one end as ground raw meat in a seamed can and coming out hours later as cooked finished product, the same today as in yesteryear.

Yet continuous improvement has had an important hand in Spam product and process evolution. The most dramatic improvement in Spam production has been the conversion from three- to two-piece cans and from lithograph pre-printed cans to the application of printed labels to a standardized can – a significant supply chain improvement.

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