Genesee County’s food processing industry is getting a boost from a France-based company which says it’s here for the long term.
Bonduelle made its formal introduction to the area this morning in a press conference attended by Congressman Chris Collins, Assemblyman Steve Hawley and other local politicians or their representative. The company acquired the Allens plants in Bergen, Oakfield and Brockport in March 2012 as it integrates itself into the U.S. market. The 160-year-old, family-owned company has several plants in southern Ontario and Quebec, Canada and is present in over 100 countries. Genesee County Economic Development Center President Steve Hyde says Bonduelle is a dependable presence for area farmers whose crops will be used at the processing facilities.
“What we’ve got is the opportunity for huge stability in the crop side of our food processing world – and not only that, they have big plans for growth,” he said.
Daniel Vielfaure, CEO of Bonduelle Americas, says Genesee County was the best choice for Bonduelle’s U.S. transition because of its convenient agricultural situation, excellent soil, and strong agricultural community.
“We have plants in Ontario which is the same agricultural region,” he said, “so the agricultural know-how is pretty much the same. When we go further (away) it’s a new learning curve because it’s not the same – the weather, the temperatures, the soils – we’re pretty good in this area already.”
Vielfaure says Bonduelle was able to take advantage of an ardent workforce in need of reinvigoration.
“When we visited the plants,” Vielfaure said, “what I saw was people who were eager for improvement. They were under a company (Allens) that was not looking at growth as we are and the employees were realizing that. When they saw that we were visiting, that we were really interested, I got the feeling that we got the right people to do what we wanted to do.”
“Truly we explained to them that they would need to change the way they were doing things. It’s not easy to change, but they were open to that, and that’s why we’ve turned it around. I can honestly say that in the first year of this acquisition, we did make profit, which was not the case with the previous owner.”
He said the company did not accept tax breaks from the county to complete the acquisition because simply, assistance wasn’t needed. They used a “hurry-up offense” – a football analogy Vielfaure used – to get the seeds in the ground by April to start the process as soon as possible and knew this was the best opportunity to jump right in.
It’s invested $5.5 million dollars into four U.S. plants (with one in Wisconsin) including $3.2 million in combined infrastructure upgrades and expansions in both the Bergen and Oakfield facilities. County Manager Jay Gsell says Bonduelle has turned around the facilities which weren't in good shape prior to the acquisition; but that’s hardly the only benefit of its presence.
“These guys coming in, recognizing that, and then saying we’ve got to make a big investment and bring this up to speed and bring it up to capacity is significant as far as keeping the employees and also growing the number of potential jobs,” Gsell said. “The fact that they’re doing this on their own dime is also good because that’s all new value added right away.”
“This is a game changer,” Hyde said. “The companies that owned this plant previously were really allowing it to decline and they weren’t investing and they weren’t growing, and now what you see is a 180.”
Bonduelle has kept the fulltime Allens workers. The Bergen plant employs 33 permanent workers and 105 seasonal workers; the Oakfield facility has 36 permanent and 83 seasonal. There are no explicit plans to expand at this time but Bonduelle representatives say, “As we continue to conduct operations and push for higher processing capabilities in the U.S. we will assess our workforce needs and add positions accordingly. Bonduelle will gauge its U.S. future growth based on customer needs and increased requests for products.” The company plans to process 257 million pounds of frozen vegetables in the U.S. in 2014, 40 percent of which in Bergen and 17 percent in Oakfield.
The Bergen plant at 15 Church Street is versatile processing peas, green beans, carrots and corn. The Oakfield plant at 40 Stevens Street is much more focused on green beans, but Bonduelle is also trying out lima beans at the facility for the first time.
Bonduelle will be using local farmers’ crops in their processing plants (coordinated through a third-party organization), but also contract with a local trucking company for transport services and a local cold storage facility to store processed vegetables.