It's good to be King

by Arvin Donley
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As you enter the city limits of Lowell, Michigan, U.S., in the distance you can see the word “King” spelled out in big red letters above King Milling Company’s “A” Mill, reflecting in a sense the company’s importance in this small town of 4,000 people, located near Grand Rapids in the west central part of the state.

Nestled in the heart of the downtown area on the west bank of the Flat River, King Milling has been a family-owned and operated company in Lowell for more than 100 years and is a source of local pride as it is the largest flour mill in terms of milling capacity in the state of Michigan.

The first mill in Lowell was built in 1844 on the east bank of the Flat River and was called the Forrest Mill. In 1867, the town’s second mill was built on the west bank of the river — the current site of King Milling — and was called the Superior Mill. When Superior Mill filed for bankruptcy in 1890, it was bought by a local lumber company owned by Francis King, thus the King Milling Company was born.

In 1900, another local lumberman named Thomas Doyle bought the company and his three sons – Charles, Renis and William went to work for King Milling. In 1939, management of the company was turned over to William, and under his direction the volume of the business increased substantially. He also directed the installation of new water turbines under both mills and oversaw the construction of a new concrete dam across the river to power the mills.

When William died suddenly in 1945, management of the company was passed to his two sons, King, only 23, and Mike, 15. Despite being thrust into such a lofty position at such a young age, the brothers led the company to unprecedented growth over the next 50-plus years until handing over the management duties to King’s son, Brian, and Mike’s sons, Jim and Steve.

In May 2014, King Milling’s management team — Brian Doyle, president; and his cousins, Jim Doyle, senior vice-president; and Steve Doyle, vice-president — sat down with World Grain at its offices in Lowell to discuss the company’s remarkable history, its recently completed expansion with the construction of a “B” mill, and its vision for the future.

Wide range of products

Over the years, King Milling has gained a reputation as a small company that offers a big menu of products for its customers. Brian Doyle noted that King Milling has more than 100 different product numbers when you include the different-size packages.

“We can mill so many different types of flour right here,” Brian Doyle said. “We’ve got the guys that know how to do it, and we have the software in both mills to be able make those changes and make them fast.”

In an industry that features increasing consolidation with the dominant players in the North American industry continuing to add market share, King Milling has made its mark by excelling in two key areas. “Versatility is our biggest strength, and we have the ability to respond quickly to our customers’ needs,” said Jim Doyle.

“We custom mill almost everything,” Brian Doyle added, noting that 95% of its flour products are shipped to customers, mainly commercial bakeries, in the Grand Rapids area and other parts of the state.

To produce these different types of flour, King Milling mills many different types of wheat — hard red spring, hard red winter, hard white, soft red and soft white. All of its soft wheat is harvested in and around Michigan and brought to the mill by truck, while the company brings in hard wheat via rail primarily from the Great Plains states.

“We got into milling hard wheat in the late 1980s,” Brian Doyle said. “We did so as a response to our customers. That was our grandfather’s and fathers’ way of doing things. Whatever the customer wants, we will find a way to do it.”

Brian Doyle said the rationale for building a “B” mill was simple — customers were demanding more flour and the company needed more production capacity to meet that demand. “Our storage capacity for flour is now up to 52 truckloads, which enables us to deliver quickly to our customers,” he said.

However, figuring out where to build a second mill in such a landlocked area was anything but simple.

“We are surrounded,” he said. “We have the river on one side, a street on another, and so we just had to shoehorn it in where we could. We thought maybe we could double the width of the old mill. We had some space to make it wider on the west side, but that was really too complicated from a construction standpoint.”

What they opted for was building a separate mill a few meters to the west of the “A” mill, with the two facilities connected with a third-floor skywalk.

“It worked out very nicely where we were able to tie it into our existing flour loadout so we didn’t have to rearrange our loadout situation,” Steve Doyle said.

The construction of the “B” mill added about 5,000 cwts of white flour daily milling capacity, increasing the overall capacity to 12,500 cwts. Grain storage capacity was not increased. King Milling also has 4,000 cwts of daily capacity for whole wheat flour production, giving it an overall capacity of 16,500 cwts. “We started doing whole wheat flour in 1982,” Brian Doyle said. “We’ve had a steady demand for it.”

With the addition of the “B” Mill, King Milling’s Lowell facility now ranks as the 29th largest mill in North America (tied with five other mills) in terms of daily milling capacity, according to figures listed in Sosland Publishing’s 2014 Grain & Milling Annual.

Building the new mill also meant an expansion of millfeed production. King Milling’s millfeed is primarily shipped to large turkey and hog producers throughout the state.

“They use a lot of midds,” Jim Doyle said. “Probably 98% of what we produce is shipped with 100 miles of here. There are a lot of big feed places, and they’re close by. We’re probably doing about 8 to 10 trucks per day.”

King Milling can now store 20 truckloads of midds; prior to the expansion only six truckloads could be stored. The speed in which trucks are loaded with millfeed also has been greatly improved, he said, noting that trucks can be filled in 15 minutes compared to what had been 60 to 90 minutes before the “B” mill and new loadout system were built.

Construction challenges

Brian Doyle noted that when construction of the “B” mill began in the fall of 2012 with the pouring of the foundation by a local company, King Milling faced two hard deadlines — deer hunting season and winter.

“They got the foundation poured just before deer hunting season, which was important, because they were going to lose employees to vacation at that point. Everybody around here takes off for deer hunting season. It’s almost like a religion,” Brian Doyle said with a smile. “So we got that done, and we were able to start the slipform process in the following spring, right before St. Patrick’s Day.”

Like most projects of this nature, there were problems that needed to be solved.

“It took a little longer to get things going initially, because we had to move two large utilities,” Brian Doyle said. “We couldn’t build the mill on top of a storm drain and a sanitary sewer. We also had to move the loading dock to the other side of the building, and the natural gas service had to be moved.”

King Milling also had to work with the city to upgrade its electrical power from 4,160 voltage to 12,470.

“We ended up changing all existing transformers as well as putting a new transformer in for the new mill,” Jim Doyle said. “It’s now running on all new underground power and wiring. We weren’t anticipating having to do that when we started.”

And because it was building a new facility on a flood plain, King Milling had to work with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources to get a building permit, which was a months-long process.

The slipform work and the installation of equipment was performed by Todd & Sargent, Ames, Iowa, U.S., and most of the milling equipment was supplied by Bühler, Inc., Plymouth, Minnesota, U.S. From pouring the foundation to the beginning of operations, the project took 14 months to complete.

Inside the mill

Steve Doyle said wheat is transferred from grain storage into the cleaning house section of the mill, which includes a magnet, scalper, Bühler’s new Vega High Performance Grain Classifier, scourer, aspirator and Sortex color sorter. After leaving the color sorter, the wheat goes into tempering for 12 to 18 hours before being taken through another short cleaning process that includes another scouring, aspirating and ventilating process.

The wheat then enters the milling section where it is passes through a series of Bühler Antares roller mills, including four double highs, two 10-section Bühler Sirius MPAK sifters featuring Novapur sieves and purifiers, the first to be used by King Milling in about 40 years.

“We took out purifiers out of the old mill in the 1970s,” Steve Doyle said. “The new mill is primarily hard wheat so we added two new purifiers in there.”

The finished product is transported to eight flour bins, all on load cells, that each hold about 225,000 pounds (2,250 cwts) of flour.

Steve Doyle noted that power factor correction equipment was installed in the “B” mill, which helps optimize energy efficiency.

“The power factor is very efficient in the new mill,” he said. “Things are sized and running at what they should be. The power company loves us for that. They want us to get the ‘A’ mill up to that same standard and we will eventually do that.”

With the mill located in the heart of downtown Lowell, keeping noise from the plant to a minimum has always been a top priority of the company. In the new mill, King Milling installed silencers on the big noise-making fans inside the plant.

“When you’re standing outside the mill you can’t even tell that it’s running,” Steve Doyle noted.

Another unique feature of the mill is a pneumatic lines that take flour and other products from the “A” mill through the “B” mill into loadout.

With the new mill up and running, King Milling’s management said the company has put itself in a position to improve on the foundation of success built by previous generations of the Doyle family.

“If we keep our quality up and our costs down we should be able to continue to compete,” Brian Doyle said. “We’re facing more stringent government regulations all the time, and we have to spend more to satisfy the government that we’re making a quality product. We have an employee that basically all he does is work on those kinds of things. For a small company that’s a big expense. A big company can absorb that easier. As you know, milling is not a high-margin business.”

Overcoming fire and floods

From the devastating fire of 1943 that completely destroyed its flour mill to threats from flood waters, most recently in 2013, King Milling has faced its share of adversity and challenges from Mother Nature over the years.

The biggest setback the company ever faced was the fire that 71 years ago burned its wooden mill to the ground. But King Milling rose from the ashes stronger than ever as it replaced the mill with a new state-of-the-art concrete mill filled with the most modern milling equipment of its time. When it was completed, in 1945, the mill’s production capacity was 600 cwts of flour with storage available for up to 80,000 bushels of wheat.

“During the rebuild of the mill after the fire, World War II was raging that whole time, so it was mainly older men and kids working on the rebuild,” said King Milling President Brian Doyle. “When they were doing the slipform work for that mill it was done by local people. They had to mix the concrete here. The mill we just completed took six days to slip, and they did it back then in the same amount of time. That’s really remarkable.”

During the building of the “B” mill in 2013, King Milling dealt with a 100-year flood as the Flat River, located right next to the milling site, rose to nearly unprecedented levels.

“Painters were here from Todd & Sargent (contractor for the mill construction project) and they actually helped us fill sand bags,” King Milling Senior Vice-President Jim Doyle said. “So did some of the construction workers because the water was really rising. Then they went back to work while we put barricades in and placed all the sandbags.”

Coincidentally, and quite fortunately, King Milling had just done a disaster preparedness drill a few months earlier on the issue of flooding.

“We do a drill like that every year where we pick a different subject,” Jim Doyle said. “It just happened that we did one on flooding right before this happened. Because of that, we knew what part of the mill would be in danger of flooding first so we knew where to place the sandbags. I’ve never seen the water that high but we didn’t have to shut down fortunately.”

Being next to the river isn’t all bad, however. Besides being located in a scenic area, the mill uses water turbines to draw about one percent, or about 140 horsepower, of its power from the river.