Business

Ingredion employees cheer Cedar Rapids plant's 125-year history

'It's really come a long way'

Production helper Mike Moore, an employee of 31 years, talks to Gazette reporter Thomas Friestad at Ingredion in Cedar R
Production helper Mike Moore, an employee of 31 years, talks to Gazette reporter Thomas Friestad at Ingredion in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Even more than a century ago, representatives from what now is Ingredion’s plant in Cedar Rapids were bullish on its future in the city.

“There has been a general increase in our business for the last six weeks and there is no indication of a falling off,” an employee with then-Douglas Starch Works told the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette in an article published Aug. 24, 1914.

“We are running to full capacity seven days a week ... . We anticipate a tremendous demand for our products this fall.”

That demand has persisted to the present day. Current holiday shoppers across the nation likely have had products from Ingredion’s Cedar Rapids facility show up on their doorsteps without even knowing it — the plant is the starting point for starches often used to reinforce cardboard boxes for delivery.

More than 100 years after its inception, the Cedar Rapids facility still is chugging along, now manufacturing industrial starch and ethanol, in what plant officials say is a rare show of resiliency in the industrial world.

Plant Manager Roxie Simon attributed that local longevity to the plant’s employee base and its “good, solid Midwestern values.”

“I think it’s the leadership and the vision of those who’ve run the facility to say, ‘OK, we’re going to evolve with changing markets and we’re going to make something that’s going to make money,’ but then you’ve got to have a strong, resilient, team-oriented workforce to make it happen too,” Simon said.

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“If you have one and not the other, you’re not going to be successful. For me, I think it’s really the combo of both in terms of how we’ve been able to not just weather but then thrive in different parts of our history.”

When times get tough

The plant on First Street SW has undergone seven ownership changes over the years — most recently in March 2015, when Westchester, Ill.-based Ingredion, a specialty ingredients company, acquired Penford Corp. to the tune of $340 million.

George Douglas Jr. and his brother Walter originally established Douglas Starch Works in 1903 approximately where Ingredion sits today, after founding what became Douglas and Co. in 1894 — the year Ingredion uses in marking its 125-year anniversary in Cedar Rapids.

Though Douglas Starch Works by 1914 had grown into the world’s largest independent cornstarch works, employees were left to rebuild after May 22, 1919, when a fire of unknown origin resulted in an explosion that reduced the plant to rubble.

Forty-four employees were killed, with numerous others injured, and the company was left to pay more than $44 million in today’s dollars for repairs and payments to the victims’ families.

Shades of that rebuilding process carried over nearly 90 years later, on June 11, 2008, when then-Penford Products was swamped during the Cedar Rapids flood, in some places up to 20 feet, experiencing damages estimated in excess of $56 million.

Though Simon, who has overseen the plant for two and a half years and was not present at that flood, she said those experiences from longtime employees were among the first she heard upon joining.

“This plant was underwater. We were not operating for two months in one part of the plant and our ethanol business was down,” she said, adding that a “can-do attitude” both from leadership and employees helped Penford pull through.

“The stories are pretty remarkable. ... When times get tough, you’ve got to make a decision and come together.”

More modernized

Ingredion’s Cedar Rapids facility currently manufactures dry and liquid industrial starches and fuel-grade ethanol.

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Other products the plant has manufactured across its history run the gamut from soap stock and brewer’s grits to 68 different labels of corn syrup and molasses in 1954, when then-Penick and Ford was the world’s largest distributor of those wares.

Among Ingredion’s current largest customers serviced out of its Cedar Rapids plant are Domtar Industries, which uses ethylated starch for the surfaces of copy paper at a mill it operates in Ashdown, Ark., Ingredion production planner Curt Rollo said.

Industrial starch also is shipped to Conyers, Ga., where cardboard box manufacturer Pratt Industries uses the product to create stiff, hard-to-break boxes for customers such as Amazon.com to use for deliveries, Rollo said.

As the Cedar Rapids facility has evolved over the years, so, too, have its technologies.

Employees now can perform basic tasks, such as opening or closing tank valves, with computer commands, rather than walking down a flight of stairs to physically do so, said corn elevator operator Debra Ties-Rodriguez, a plant employee for nearly 27 years.

“Over the years, it’s really come a long way. Everything has gotten more modernized,” said Ties-Rodriguez.

She now weighs corn trucks as they enter and exit the facility, and uses a computer to calibrate their bushels deposited.

Starch building operator James Kersten said he uses about 60 different screens to monitor hundreds of pieces of equipment each day, with access to around 120 screens in total.

Training new employees to make use of the technology takes around three months, and though he estimated it takes most people a year to become fully comfortable overseeing the machines, employees come from all different backgrounds.

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“We have everyone from bakers, video-store operators to people with an engineering background,” Kersten said.

Also noticeable among the Cedar Rapids plant’s workforce are what Kersten described as a large number of family members, including his younger brother, Thomas, who joined as a general utility worker in 2015.

“I’ve never been at a place that has so many family members hired,” he said, attributing the trend to Ingredion’s pay, benefits and union representation. “When I first came here, it seemed very alive to me through the years.”

Juan Rodriguez, who works with liquid and natural additives at the facility, said his 28-year-old son also became an employee in April.

“Since I started here, I learned a lot from the older people,” Rodriguez said. “What we try to do is pass it on to the younger people who are coming behind us.”

That current Ingredion employees recommend jobs at the facility to family members is the most “telling” indicator of their engagement, said Simon, the plant manager.

“You look at our economy being so strong and unemployment being so low, people have a choice in where they want to work, especially within manufacturing, and the people who come to work here are referrals,” she said.

“They’re people who say, ‘Yep, my dad works here, my brother works here, my neighbor works here,’ and they say it’s a good place to work.”

By the numbers

• 100 to 200 1,000-bushel trucks deposit corn at Ingredion’s Cedar Rapids facility each day

• 90,000 bushels of corn grind capacity per day

• 3,200 bags of dried starch packaged at the facility each day

• 580 million pounds of starch dried at the plant on an annual basis

• Four to five 20,000-gallon rail cars transport ethanol from the plant each day

• 200 salaried and hourly employees currently working at the plant

• $5.84 billion in net sales for 2018, across all Ingredion facilities

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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