Conservative expansion has served Star of the West well in its 170-year history that started with two brothers and a $3,000 mill in Michigan, before growing into the 11th largest milling company in the United States with five flour mills.
Star of the West weighed its options for close to 12 years before deciding to build a new greenfield mill in Willard, Ohio, U.S., which started production in July 2016. The largest of the company’s facilities at 10,000 cwts, it is also the first greenfield mill Star of the West has built since 1910.
Back then, a group of farmers who had purchased the company decided a new mill was needed (since the existing mill dated to 1886) and constructed a new mill at the corner of Hubinger and Tuscola streets in Frankenmuth, Michigan, U.S. That mill is still operational and is home to Star of the West’s headquarters.
The company also has a history of longtime employees, including Dick Krafft, who joined the company in 1947 as a bookkeeper and became president in 1953, a position he held for 50 years.
“Dick Krafft grew the company in a smart and conservative way,” said Gary Pickelmann, corporate milling superintendent. “You also need to surround yourself with a team of people who work hard and put in the extra time to get the job done.”
Now, the company has a total capacity of 32,460 cwts, according to Sosland Publishing Company’s 2018 Grain and Milling Annual, with mills in Willard; Ligonier, Indiana, U.S. (8,100 cwts); Frankenmuth (5,960 cwts); Quincy, Michigan, U.S. (3,400 cwts); and Churchville, New York, U.S. (5,000 cwts). It also has 15 country elevators, an edible bean division with facilities in Michigan and North Dakota and an agronomy service.
When it came time to grow milling capacity, the company first considered increasing output at its existing mill in Kent, Ohio, U.S., Pickelmann said.
“We were so landlocked in the city,” he said. “The flour mills were the first things built, and the city built around them. It made it difficult with the river and two railroads behind the mill. It made sense to come here.”
The location also is ideal because of its proximity to origination of soft red wheat within a 60-mile radius of the mill and access to CSX rail line. Most importantly, the site is located next to the mill’s largest customer.
Previously, wheat was shipped from the Willard area by truck or rail to Kent about 85 miles away, processed into flour, and sent back to the customer by truck. Now, flour is sent directly to the customer via an 8-inch pipe, amounting to about 45% of the mill’s production.
“It’s a big win for everyone,” said Steven “Red” Michel, plant manager. The Kent mill was closed in September 2016, and a majority of the equipment has been removed and put in other locations or in storage.
After negotiating the purchase of 15 acres and a long-term supplier agreement with the customer, construction started on the Willard mill on Sept. 29, 2014.
“Compared to Star of the West’s other flour mills, it’s the most state-of-the-art, highly automated facility,” Pickelmann said. “It uses all of the latest technology and equipment that is available from many of the milling companies.”
Uzwil, Switzerland-based Bühler provided engineering, product flow design and was the main equipment supplier while Todd & Sargent, Ames, Iowa, U.S., served as the building contractor. Janotta & Herner, Inc., Monroeville, Ohio, U.S., provided site engineering and preparation as well as on-site contractor services.
Safe, Consistent Product
In addition to conservative expansion, Star of the West also attributes its success to being forward thinking on safety and providing quality products, Michel said.
“We go that extra mile to make sure the customer is getting what they’re looking for and exceeding expectations,” he said. “We continue to keep our standards high. Customer service is huge, and we think we’re very good at that.”
With the Willard facility, a strong emphasis was placed on automation and cleaning, to ensure the best finished product.
Wheat is received by truck, and it is sampled, tested and graded in the receiving building. Falling number and vomitoxin tests are completed before the wheat enters three GSI corrugated steel tanks measuring 60-feet in diameter and 117 feet tall with total storage of 800,000 bushels.
Before entering storage, the wheat goes through magnets from Magnetic Products, Inc. to remove any ferrous tramp metal, including iron, steel, fines, rust or scale from the product stream. From there it is put through a Bühler 250-tph universal pre-cleaner.
Wheat is then moved to concrete storage that consists of four slip-form silos measuring 33-feet in diameter and 136 feet tall. Each has a capacity to hold about 83,000 bushels and there is an interstice with a capacity of 24,000 bushels. Between the steel bins and concrete silos, total grain storage is a little over 1 million bushels.
The cleaning house is extensive, Pickelmann said, and includes screening machines, scourers, aspiration machines and SORTEX color sorters, all supplied by Bühler.
“You want to get the wheat as clean as possible,” Michel said. “That helps with the quality and consistency of your flour.”
The wheat is tempered with a Bühler dampener turbolizer for 12 to 14 hours, Michel said. From there, wheat goes through first break and through a series of Bühler Antares 4- and 8-roller mills, Bühler Sirius 10-section and six-section plansifters and Bühler Polaris purifiers.
Flour is shipped via pneumatic conveying through an 8-inch pipe to the company’s next-door customer or stored in 13 finished flour storage tanks. The bagging station on the first floor of the mill includes a 10- to 12-bags-per-minute Bühler Maia bagging station that fills 50-pound bags.
The bags are then palletized using a robotic stacking system. Germ is shipped in super sacks or totes weighing 1,750 pounds and all middlings are shipped in bulk.
The Willard plant produces pastry flour, cake flour and cookie flour and milling byproducts, including middlings for animal feed and food-grade wheat germ. In addition to its customer next door, Star of the West ships finished product to Arizona, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, and other locations in Ohio and Ontario, Canada.
Pickelmann said there are plans on paper for additional 1 million bushels of wheat storage and the infrastructure is in place to build a second flour mill to the south of the existing mill. The mill would be similarly sized, but may make different products, he said.
“When they say go, we can put the numbers together and go,” Pickelmann said, noting there is no timeline for expanding.
Star of the West is always looking at projects, he said, and upgrades are planned or underway at some facilities. The Ligonier mill is adding a new cleaning house and the Churchville mill is upgrading its cleaning house, wheat receiving, pre-cleaning and feed load-out. Work is also under way on an automation project at the Frankenmuth mill.
“Once we get that project done, we have a plan to increase capacity there as well,” Pickelmann said.
Automation and Experience
Along with improved safety features, the high degree of automation also means the mill can run with fewer employees. In Kent, the mill had 24 employees and produced 400,000 pounds (4,000 cwts) per day, Michel said. At Willard, there are 20 employees producing a million pounds per day. But it’s still important to have good millers who can tie the whole process together, he said.
“You have to have the automation, but you also have to have the art and science of milling,” Michel said. “You still have to be able to listen, you still have to be able to smell. We have one miller who always gets a sample and takes a smell.”
With capable millers and automation, there’s less downtime and better quality and consistency, Pickelmann said.
“If you have a choke up, it suspends the system a lot quicker so you can get it back up quicker,” he said.
Training is stressed at Star of the West, whether it’s cross training within the mill, at conferences or through university programs.
“The more you cross train and get people to understand the other side of what they’re doing, the better,” Michel said.
Star of the West makes sure employees have an opportunity to further their education, Pickelmann said. Prior to starting the mill, millers made multiple trips to Bühler’s North American headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., to learn how to use the equipment and prepare to operate the mill.
The company participates in International Association of Operative Millers’ (IAOM) district meetings and the international conference, and Kansas State University’s correspondence courses.
“We had one miller from our Ligonier mill go through the Cowley College program set up by IAOM and two more are enrolling in that,” Pickelmann said. “It’s been excellent training.”
As the industry changes, especially the ongoing consolidation of milling companies, Star of the West will continue to keep its standards high and stay involved in the industry, Michel said.
“We reach out to keep the quality up and to exceed the quality expectations,” he said. “To stay competitive, you have to have that customer service and that growth and continue to keep your standards up.”
To view the complete slideshow of the new mill, click here.