Birds Eye avoids sale and closure

(Published August 8, 2006, 9:49 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

The Birds Eye Foods manufacturing facility in Darien was left off the just-announced corporate list of plant sales or closures and the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance wants to keep it that way.

On July 25, Birds Eye Foods announced it would exit much of its non-branded frozen food business within the next 12 to 18 months and sell five facilities. The locations, which in total employ 740 workers, are in Brockport, Bergen and Oakfield, N.Y., Fairwater, Wis., and Montezuma, Ga.

A sixth plant in Watsonville, Cal., which employs 550, will close, according to a company news release.

"We believe there is tremendous potential and trust in the Birds Eye brand and our other brands that we have yet to tap fully," Neil Harrison, company chairman, president and chief executive officer said in the release. "Our non-branded frozen business, with its lower margins, utilized resources which now can be freed up to drive brand growth and to compete more aggressively with competitors who are not producing non-branded lines."

Birds Eye employs 250 in Darien and sold more than $51 million in products, WCEDA Executive Vice President Fred Burkhardt said. The plant processes, freezes, packages and distributes a range of frozen vegetables, said Birds Eye spokesman Mike Lawrence.

"We were very relieved that the Darien plant was not on their target list of closures or sales," Burkhardt said. "When a company makes evaluations for plant closings, you need to take a hard look at the plants in your community. By looking at that, we felt the best thing to do was to be proactive in support of our local facility."

A team of business leaders and government officials from the town, village, county and state is being created to make sure Birds Eye has taken advantage of every financial incentive offered, Burkhardt said.

"Our next step is to make sure to communicate to (Birds Eye) corporate that these incentives are available and how to get access to them," Burkhardt said, referring to available tax credits, workforce training credits and potential energy savings. "We will work with the state to consolidate every incentive we can."

Lawrence, who was traveling when reached for comment, hadn't heard of WCEDA's intentions.

"That's a good thing," Lawrence said when told of the effort. "I'm sure that any information that's not already known (about incentives) will be welcome." Efficiency and profitability are important when a company analyzes its resources and decides to restructure, Lawrence added.

"There is a lot of stuff going on there," Lawrence said of the Darien facility. "That is one reason it was not on the (closing or sale) list, among others."

WCEDA has provided support to smaller businesses facing possible closure, but nothing of this magnitude, Burkhardt said.

"There hasn't been an instance where this kind of preventative strike needed to be executed, at least on a company this size," Burkhardt said.

Birds Eye intends to sell the five plants to other non-branded food producers that will keep them running, Harrison said in the release. Non-branded foods are "house brands" sold under supermarket names that are processed by branded companies.

The 60,700-square-foot Darien Birds Eye plant has had a history of previous owners. It started in the late 1960s as a Libby McNeal plant and was also owned by Dean Foods and Larson's Foods. Agrilink ran the plant before it packaged frozen vegetables under the Birds Eye labels, village officials said.

The company's long-range plan aims to make Birds Eye smaller and more profitable, Harrison said in an interview with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Harrison told the paper there is a future in frozen vegetables.

"Parents are taking Johnny to football and Mary Lou to music lessons," he told the Democrat and Chronicle. "The hectic lifestyle we all lead, consumers will tell us they are getting time-starved and energy-starved. At the end of the day, consumers are saying, 'peeling produce, rolling the dough, making the pastry... I don't have the time.' What they want is a convenient solution, and that's frozen."

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