Mennel diversifying its product line

by Arvin Donley
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Mennel Milling Fostoria, Ohio U.S. office
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Photo courtesy of Mennel Milling.
Since taking over for his father as president of The Mennel Milling Company in 2013, Ford Mennel hasn’t shied away from making bold decisions that will impact the direction of the 132-year old family business in the coming years. In the past four years the company, in its fifth generation of Mennel leadership, has diversified its product line by investing in several new strategic ventures, including the acquisition of two bakery mix facilities, a popcorn facility and a distribution center.

“You look at our industry now and we’re fighting consolidation at the top end and that’s not going away,” Ford Mennel told World Grain in a recent interview at the company’s headquarters in Fostoria, Ohio, U.S. “We need to continue to differentiate ourselves and offer unique products that others aren’t producing. When you’re looking at the value chain, the last couple of acquisitions we’ve been involved with have been line extensions where we got further into bakery mixes and doing more specialty blending so we’re not having to fight over the pennies in the white bulk flour business. I think that’s critical.”

Once the 10,000-cwts expansion of its Fostoria mill is complete this spring, Mennel will be the seventh largest flour milling company in the United States at 50,900 cwts, according to Sosland Publishing Company’s 2018 Grain & Milling Annual, with flour mills located in Fostoria (28,000 cwts, hard and soft wheat); Mount Olive, Illinois, U.S. (2,400 cwts, soft wheat); Dowagiac, Michigan, U.S. (5,500 cwts, soft wheat); Bucyrus, Ohio, U.S. (5,000 cwts, soft wheat); and Roanoke, Virginia, U.S. (10,000 cwts, hard and soft wheat).

Mennel milling
Bühler sifters will be used at the mill in Fostoria.
Photo courtesy of Mennel Milling.
For many years Mennel Milling has produced a full range of hard and soft wheat flours, but in 2015 it branched out with the acquisition of a popcorn processing facility that ConAgra had closed in Morral, Ohio, and created a new division called Morral Specialty Grain: Home of Mennel Popcorn. The following year, Mennel purchased a mix facility from General Mills in Martel, Ohio, and also announced the acquisition of Renwood Mills, LLC, a flour and mix company in Newton, North Carolina, as part of a joint venture with Plaza Belmont Group.

“The biggest evolution for our organization is that we’ve recently added some new facilities and capabilities,” Ford Mennel said. “Milling is still the core of our business. We’ve always had three core competencies in our business, which are grain handling, milling and transportation, and now we’ve brought in a fourth in what we call our bakery mix and food service division with the bakery mix and popcorn.

“We have started to change our focus on being more of an ingredient company and supplying a lot of different products whether it be contract manufactured or an ingredient going into a further refined product versus just being known as a flour milling company.”

Mennel Milling
From left, Scott Flick, plant manager; David Marty, vice president of operations; Tom Kellogg, project manager; Heidi Long vice-president of sales; Ford Mennel president; Gary Lowery, milling superintendent; and Hal Bishop, director of automation and electrical systems, inside Mennel headquarters in Fostoria, Ohio, U.S.
Photo courtesy of Mennel Milling.
Ford Mennel said the company considered doing a lot of different things with the facility in Morral, including converting it into an identity preserved grains plant or making it an origination site for organic grains. But Mennel ultimately decided to stay the course with popcorn production.

“We have been familiar with that facility for years,” he said. “We drive past it all the time and we saw those grain bins sitting there and we always thought if that facility was ever available it would fit nicely in our footprint.

“When we walked through the facility and saw the true capability of it we realized it would be silly not to run popcorn through it, which was its reason for being there. Our first harvest was in the fall of 2016 and we started packaging it and marketing it at the beginning of 2017.”

Mennel, which operates 10 country grain elevators in Ohio, Indiana and Virginia, now has expanded its company footprint into six states.

In terms of flour production, Mennel Milling heads into the new year focusing on a lot of value-added products such as its Snowhite non-chlorinated cake flour for the clean label market and its heat-treated flour.

Five years ago, Mennel only produced heat-treated flour in one of its milling locations, but soon it will have that production capability in four of its five dedicated flour mills. “Our history in heat-treated flour has really served us well,” Ford Mennel said. “We’re seen as a supplier of choice when it comes to heat treatment and expertise in that area. We’ve seen a lot of growth there. With the emphasis on food safety, that’s really what’s behind that growth. We’ve produced heat-treated flour since 1980, but it’s really taken off recently.”

Mennel Milling
Mennel recently added new chief bins with storage capacity of 860,000 bushels, bringing the overall grain storage capacity at the Fostoria mill to nearly 4-million bushels.
Photo by Arvin Donley.

New spring wheat line

Mennel Milling’s latest endeavor is the expansion of its mill in Fostoria. The company is adding 10,000 cwts of milling capacity at the plant by installing a line that will exclusively mill hard spring wheat. The Fostoria plant has three other milling lines — one that mills both hard and soft wheat and two that mill soft wheat only.

David Marty, vice-president of operations at Mennel Milling, said demand for spring wheat flour has been on the rise, so adding a spring wheat line at the company’s flagship mill made sense. “The Fostoria mill has been running at virtual capacity the last five years,” Marty said. “The last three to five years we’ve been running at 90% utilized capacity on a seven-day-a-week schedule. That really hasn’t allowed us a lot of flexibility.”

Construction of the mill, which will feature primarily Bühler milling equipment, is expected to be completed this spring, but the planning for the new milling line began about two years ago, Marty said.

Mennel chose to break away from convention in several ways in constructing the new milling line. For starters, the design and layout of the mill was done by using 3D modeling, a first for the company.

“All the trades who worked on this project were involved in that, down to the sprinkler company, the electrical company, and so on,” he said. “It was the first one Bühler was involved with. There was a learning curve for everyone on it. But the nice thing is it virtually eliminates field engineering, so if the ductwork is going through the door of the rollstand, you figure that out on the 3D model rather than when you are in the process of constructing the plant. It’s far more expensive to fix the problem out there than it is on the computer.”

Another unusual aspect of the project, at least considering that it’s a U.S. mill, is that the seven-floor building is comprised of steel rather than slipform concrete. Marty said the decision to go with structural steel for the first time in company history was made with careful consideration. “With slipform concrete you get a lot more bearing capacity with concrete beams,” he said. “And it is probably a more sanitary design, so it has its advantages. Its biggest disadvantage is that it is highly expensive compared to structural steel. We looked at all of our options but at the end of the day we believed structural steel was the way to go because we think we can get all the sanitary design benefits with the way we did it while also enjoying a significant reduction in cost.”

Marty said tubular steel was used in certain sections of the mill that virtually eliminated the majority of ledges that are seen in a typical structural steel building. The floors are coated concrete, like the floors in slipform concrete mills, and they are coated right up to the edge of the walls to eliminate cracks and crevices, he said.

Marty said the cleaning house is the latest Bühler design featuring a shorter flow with less equipment than in a typical mill. It includes four raw wheat bins and six temper bins, with wheat being tempered for about 23 hours before being sent through the cleaning and milling process.

Marty said there are three core pieces of equipment in the cleaning house. “We have an MVRT, which is essentially a grain sifter with aspiration,” he said. “We have color sorters to deal with all other possible contamination, and then we utilize a scourer with aspirators for the rest of it. That’s essentially it.”

After the grain is transported into the milling section it will run through Bühler MDDK roller mills, mostly single high stands, then through Sirius sifters manufactured by Bühler as well as its Polaris purifiers.

Marty said Mennel is using its own control and automation systems, something it has done dating back to construction of the Bucyrus mill and expansion of the Fostoria mill earlier this century.

“This will be highly automated,” he said. “It probably could run lights out, although it won’t because we will have four milling units in there.”

In addition to installing milling equipment, Mennel is also putting in 11 flour bins with total storage capacity of 15,000 cwts. The end product will be shipped by both truck and rail in bulk, totes and bags.

The addition of the new milling line also meant adding new Chief steel bins with storage capacity of 860,000 bushels, bringing the overall grain storage capacity at the Fostoria mill to nearly 4 million bushels.

Marty noted that the general contractor, and electrical and mechanical installation for the project are all local companies whom they have used with great success in the past.

“We have done business with these folks for years,” he said. “There’s a familiarity and benefit from having folks you are going to see tomorrow working for you.”

The Fostoria complex also includes a 60-cwt-per-day pilot mill that was built in 2010, which gives Mennel an advantage in the area of research and development.

“It’s a great tool for us,” Ford Mennel said. “I think we’re the only ones in the (U.S. milling) industry to have a large-scale pilot mill in private hands other than the ones at K-State and North Dakota State. Customers like to come in and work with it, so it’s a good sales tool for us.’

Once the expansion is complete, the Fostoria facility will have the fourth largest milling capacity of any plant in the United States, tied with ADM Milling’s Beech Grove, Indiana, U.S. mill, at 28,000 cwts per day.