Addressing the nearly 100 invited guests at the grand opening ceremony of Miller Milling Co.’s new C mill at its Saginaw, Texas, U.S., facility, Jeff Thomas, president of Miller Milling, became sentimental as he reminisced about his days as a mill superintendent.

Thomas, who in 2015 traded in his milling whites for a suit and tie as he moved to the company’s headquarters in Bloomington, Minnesota, U.S., to become vice-president of operations before being promoted to president two years later, recalled a conversation he had with his mill employees in Saginaw many years ago.

“For those who don’t know, I have a very close and personal connection to this facility,” he explained. “It was 13 years ago almost to this day that I started at this facility and was responsible for restarting it after it was closed. At that time, it was a pretty small plant — about a fourth of the size that it is today.

“One of my first duties was to help develop a 10-person team to run the mill. As I look back over the first few years of developing the team and working together, I remember sitting in the breakroom telling them that one day this will be at least two or three times the size it was then. One of them said to me: ‘No way, it will never be that big.’ And some of the people that were in the breakroom that day are standing in the back of the room here today. I am proud to say we have accomplished that goal.”

The two-year expansion project has increased daily flour production capacity at the mill by 70%, from 14,000 cwts to 24,000 cwts. The addition makes the Saginaw mill the second largest of Miller Milling’s facilities, just behind its Winchester, Virginia, U.S., mill, which has 26,500 cwts of daily capacity.

According to Sosland Publishing Company’s 2019 Grain & Milling Annual, the expansion makes Miller Milling’s Saginaw flour mill the second largest of nine mills in Texas behind Ardent Mills’ 26,000-cwt facility, also located in Saginaw about a mile to the south of Miller Milling. Miller Milling’s Saginaw plant is the country’s 11th largest mill in terms of milling capacity.

With Texas having the seventh fastest growing population in the United States and second largest overall at 28.3 million, adding milling capacity made perfect sense.

“In particular, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was focused on because it is growing at a notable speed and magnitude,” Jeff Hole, vice-president of operations at Miller Milling, told World Grain. “The triangle area — which includes Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston, our Saginaw mill’s primary market — is one of the most rapidly growing population regions in the United States.”

That area also includes booming metropolitan areas such as Austin, College Station and Waco, all cities that are projected to post strong population gains in the coming years.

“The project lays the groundwork to meet future flour demand across the region,” Miller Milling said in a statement when the project was launched.

Jeff Thomas, president of Miller Milling, speaks during the grand opening of the company’s newly expanded flour mill. Photo by Arvin Donley.

Growing with its customer base

The mill, which was built in 1999 as a partnership of Farmland Industries, Inc., Bay State Milling Co. and an Oklahoma regional cooperative, then sold to ConAgra Mills in 2008 before Miller Milling purchased it in 2014, has gone through several expansions. In 2008, when Thomas worked for ConAgra Mills, the Saginaw facility saw capacity expanded to 14,000 cwts from 6,000 cwts.

The most recent expansion includes a doubling of the facility’s packing capacity and warehouse space, giving Miller Milling room to “grow with its existing customer base” and to meet demand for packaged flour.

Although some consideration was given to building a new mill on a greenfield site, Hole said the decision to expand at this existing site was “a pretty easy one.” With three main rail lines — owned by the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe — running alongside the Saginaw facility and nearly 16 million bushels of grain storage already in place, it would be difficult to improve on the logistical advantages of the current location.

“This facility is unique as we do not have an elevator but a partner with our neighbor Gavilon Grain, which stores our grain,” said Hole, referring to the mammoth Gavilon concrete elevators located just south of the flour mill. “We use locally grown wheat as well as domestically grown hard and soft wheats as Saginaw is strategically located on main rail lines.”

Saginaw is certainly at the heart of Texas’ wheat production and processing industry. Within a short distance of each other are three major grain storage and processing facilities. Attebury Grain, to the north of the Miller Milling/Gavilon complex, has towering concrete silos with nearly 18 million bushels of storage capacity, while Ardent Mills’ wheat flour mill, with 3.5 million bushels of wheat storage capacity, is located to the south of Miller Milling.

“Regarding transportation and logistics for moving grain, this is a very important area in Texas,” Hole explained.

Hole said except for in extreme drought years in the southern Plains, Miller Milling sources most of its wheat from Texas and Oklahoma farmers. It also draws some hard wheat from the northern Plains states and some soft wheat from the upper Midwest.

“We’re predominantly a hard wheat mill, but we do have some soft wheat flour production here,” he said.

He added: “We can produce several different grades of flour and protein levels depending on customer specifications.”

Miller Milling, which is a fully owned subsidiary of Japan’s largest flour miller, Tokyo-based Nisshin Flour Milling Inc., worked together with its parent company to carefully devise a mill expansion plan. They hired Todd & Sargent, Ames, Iowa, U.S., as the mill construction engineer and contractor; Bühler Inc., Plymouth, Minnesota, U.S., as the mill designer and equipment supplier; Kice Industries, Wichita, Kansas, U.S., for its electrical and automation services; and Premier Tech Chronos, Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec, Canada, as the packaging equipment supplier.

It took two years to complete the project, which, given the complexity of the expansion, was reasonably quick.

“Due to space constraints and the need to keep the operations running, we had to work closely with all the contractors as several pieces of the project had to be completed in phases,” Hole said.

Unlike some expansion projects, where the new portion of the mill is attached directly to the existing mill, the C mill in Saginaw was built apart from the A and B mills next to the old warehouse, which had to remain open during construction so that product could be shipped out of the loading dock.

Meanwhile, a new, larger warehouse was being built that connected to the north side of the C mill. The product flow in the C mill is typical of a modern flour mill, Hole said.

“The cleaning house and mill flows were designed by our equipment supplier and engineering to capture all of the latest technologies available,” he said.

Wheat comes in from the Gavilon storage silos to the cleaning house, which features a wide range of Bühler equipment, including separators, scourers, aspirators, destoners and color sorters. From there, it moves to the milling section where it passes through Bühler roller mills, including four double high stands, purifiers, and sifters, including a rebolt sifter right before flour storage. Before being moved from the storage area, it passes through another rebolt sifter on its way to truck, rail or packaging.

“We can loadout into railcars now,” Hole noted. “We couldn’t do that before.

“The new packaging system installed by Premier Tech can package a variety of bag sizes between 25 and 50 pounds.”

Bags are then stored in the new 25,000-square-foot warehouse, which was constructed with eight dock doors.

With the nation’s second largest Hispanic population, behind only New Mexico, demand for tortilla flour continues to grow at Miller Milling’s Saginaw plant. Hole added that demand is growing across all product lines.

“We’ve seen growth in all of our flour products, not just in one category,” he said.

Hole said Miller Milling had to expand its staff after the expansion due to the size and complexity of the mill.

“There were a few positions added to operate the mill and loadout product,” he said.

Nisshin’s influence

Nisshin Seifun Group, which acquired Miller Milling in 2012, sent several executives from its Tokyo headquarters to the grand opening of the Saginaw mill, including Takao Yamada, president of Nisshin Flour Milling Inc.

Yamada praised the company employees as well as the contractors and equipment suppliers for their teamwork in bringing the project to fruition.

“They were able to complete construction of the new milling unit without any major issues,” Yamada said.

Hole said the parent company has showed unwavering support not only during the expansion project in Saginaw, but in all of Miller Milling’s initiatives over the past seven years.

“We share the common goal of being the No. 1 flour milling company in the world,” Hole said. “There are a lot of resources that we have been able to gain from Japan, and a lot of technology and human resources as well as far as technical knowledge goes. It’s really been a wonderful marriage.”

Nisshin, which began expanding outside of Japan in the 1980s, also has its footprint in North America as the parent company of Rogers Foods, based in Canada. It also has made acquisitions, start-ups and joint ventures in Thailand, China, India, Indonesia, New Zealand and Vietnam.

Established in 1985, Miller Milling for many years specialized in durum milling before expanding into hard wheat in 1998.

After being acquired by Nisshin, Miller Milling went from operating two U.S. flour mills (in Winchester and Fresno, California) to six when in 2014 it acquired four mills divested as part of the creation of Ardent Mills LLC. In addition to Saginaw, the divested mills are located in Commerce and Oakland, California; and New Prague, Minnesota.

With the Saginaw expansion, Miller Milling’s overall daily production capacity has expanded to 104,600 cwts, which ranks fourth in the United States behind Ardent Mills, ADM Milling and Grain Craft.