July 22, 2013
by Joel Crews
Velkommen! He greets guests to the reception area of the new, sun-splashed foyer of the Plumrose headquarters building as if he’s welcoming them to his home. Indeed, for the past two years, Freddy Mortensen, senior vice president of operations with Plumrose USA, has spent more time at the new Council Bluffs, Iowa, facility than at home. Designing and building the 130,000-sq.-ft. plant has been a labor of love for Mortensen, who was fully ensconced in an affair that spanned 54 weeks from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting, with a price tag of $78 million.
“This is the best ham plant in the world today,” he asserts, with an unmistakable Danish accent. Having operated now for about nine months, the start-up’s kinks and hiccups have been worked out of the plant where current capacity is about 260,000 lbs. of sliced ham per day with a crew of just 90 people. The new facility is barely beyond the shadows of the original Plumrose plant, where demand outpaced capacity several years ago.
It’s impossible to not notice his pride and the emanating sense of satisfaction as he sits to discuss, among other things, the plant he calls his crowning achievement. Soft spoken and humble, Mortensen first tells of a storied career that started modestly and very far from Iowa. He reflects on his being honored as Meat&Poultry’s Operations Executive of the Year and teases that he has one last item lingering on the bucket list of his career, as he reluctantly plans for a slow ride into the sunset this fall.
Born in 1944 and raised in Denmark, Mortensen dropped out of school as a 14-year-old and began an apprenticeship in butchering and sausage making. After paying his dues working as a butcher for several years, he realized education would allow him to accomplish more.
“I went back to school for five years; every night,” he recalls.
At the age of 25, he got a job with the Danish Meat Research Institute. During his 12 years working there, he served as a planner and designer of slaughtering facilities.
“That was too boring,” he says. So, he began studying meat technology in the evenings, after his day job, as a process planner and time study. Eventually, he worked his way up to the position of troubleshooter for DMRI until 1982. He then went to work as a product developer for Denmark’s Ess-Food, which at the time controlled 80 percent of the hogs in the region. While at Ess, Mortensen had an opportunity to work in the United States on a contract basis for the company that is now Danisco, which would later make him a job offer he couldn’t refuse. He worked there for nine months before being recruited by the president of Sure Pak, a plastics company that was then producing cook-and-fill bags internationally. His only complaint: “I spent too much time in the office and I’m not an office person.” After five years with that company, they opened a plant in St. Joseph, Mo., where he accepted a position to introduce cook-and-fill technology to the American industry in 1987.
When that contract ended, the East Asiatic Co., which was then the parent company of Plumrose, asked Mortensen to come back and be the plant manager at a processed-meats plant it operated in Booneville, Miss., and he accepted.
“I started there June 15, 1992.” He specifically recalls too, that on April 28, 1994, the Booneville plant was damaged by a fire. Not long after he accepted the position with East Asiatic, the firm was sold to Vestjyske Slagterier and later merged with Danish Crown. With all those changes, management in the US was almost completely revamped, with exceptions that included Mortensen. “I was the only one left behind. Then I just grew with the company,” and he eventually assumed responsibility for managing the remaining Plumrose plants.
Decades later on a sunny day in late March, Mortensen stands in the spacious, unencumbered lobby of Plumrose’s flagship facility, flanked on all sides by two-story-tall windows, gridded with stark, white panes. The European flair of the sun-soaked offices and uncluttered space is an intentional theme that also spills out into the processing floor. Absent are space-filling decorative ferns, waiting-room-esque magazines and walls filled with oil paintings or photos. In the processing area, missing are the honking forklifts, hand-trucks and hoards of employees packed into tight quarters inherent in many plants. Ingredients and products are hydraulically pumped from one processing area to the next, eliminating several logistical steps.
Reflective of Mortensen’s personality, the plant is a nirvana for admirers of automation, precision and engineering efficiency and it is all housed in walls made of concrete, as solid as a bomb shelter. So, as not to feel overtly institutional or too much like a hospital, color is boldly splashed throughout the plant. This was Mortensen’s idea. “You can see my office is nice and bright – European by design. And everything is blue,” he points out, although red is his favorite color. Carefully selected tones of blue, yellow, red and “Harley Davidson-orange” strategically adorn the walls of hallways, cafeterias and even an unused slicing room in the plant.
Certain dates are as ingrained in his memory as his wedding anniversary. “We broke ground in 2011, on Oct. 7,” he says. “The first meat ran on Oct. 31, 2012,” an impressive turnaround by most standards. “We were two weeks late,” laments Mortensen, an obvious stickler for details and planning. But the finished plant is a facility where 260,000 lbs. of product is produced using a fraction of the staff at the Plumrose plant down the street. And it is built to accommodate the growth that is sure to come, with a capacity to manufacture and slice 387,000 lbs., which would require utilizing two more slicing rooms that are currently idle, until demand warrants using them.
“When we get an order, it will take seven days until we can slice it. We cure it, we store it, we cook it, we chill it then we bring it down to 28°F and then we slice it.
“It’s a humungous amount of stainless steel,” he says of the processing floor. “It’s been a great project and a fun project to look back at. It was really exciting to get it all put together.”
Plumrose began production in Council Bluffs in 1999, just down the street from the new plant. The original facility was leased from IBP inc., before it was acquired by Tyson Foods, and the plant was eventually purchased by Plumrose USA Inc.’s parent company, Danish Crown AmbA. The company also has US processing facilities in Booneville, Miss.; Elkhart, Ind.; Swanton, Vt.; and Council Bluffs, Iowa. After four years at the Council Bluffs plant, it became clear that an expansion was needed. “We were working seven days a week,” and there was a need to add capacity. It was then that a substantial expansion was made, and what Mortensen calls the “east side,” was added in 2004. About eight years later, the company outgrew the east side.
The inception of the new plant began when Mortensen and Mike Rozzano, Plumrose’s COO, went to the IFFA trade show in 2010. They went to Frankfurt on a mission. “We wanted to build the best plant in the world,” Mortensen says. “We came home with ideas and started making some sketches.”
Rozzano says he knew Mortensen was the man to lead the project from Day 1. “He is a progressive, forward-thinking person who is constantly looking for better, more productive innovations in equipment, processing and packaging while protecting our most valued Old World recipes and flavor,” Rozzano says. “Our collaboration in building the most modern automated premium lunch-meat plant in the world is a testament to that.”
Once the sketches evolved into blueprints, getting the proposal in front of the corporate decision makers took about a year. With an 8,000 Danish-farmer ownership group at the top of Danish Crown’s hierarchy, the fact that “we don’t buy one pound of Danish meat for this plant,” was fortunately not a factor in getting the new plant approved. Mortensen says the choice was simple: either build a new plant or sell the company, which had been struggling to keep up with demand.
Atlanta-based ONEsource Facility Solutions helped develop the initial sketches. “I told them to stay away from the equipment because we are better at that than they are,” says Mortensen with a smirk. He specifically recalls getting the company’s board of directors’ approval of the master plan in August of 2011 and rushing to secure the property for the plant, within eye-shot of the original facility. That was Oct. 1, another date etched in his memory.
At the old plant, about 200 people produce approximately 400,000 lbs. of product, all of which is sent to Mississippi, to a slicing facility that employs an additional 400 people. “So, that is 600 people to slice 400,000 lbs. Here we produce 260,000 lbs. per day using 90 people. That speaks for itself – the math is pretty simple.” He repeats the mantra: “In my opinion, it is the best ham plant you can see in the world today.”
When he was finally able to unveil the plant for officials from Danish Crown touring the plant for the first time, Mortensen was as proud as a new father. “It was pure joy to have the board [of directors] here. They were impressed and they were happy to see it,” he says.
“Freddy would not allow any compromises in this greenfield project,” chimes in Rozzano, “especially when it came to product safety and product quality.”
Behind most rainmakers is a roster of past and current coworkers and colleagues whose influence and inspiration is the foundation for others’ legacies. When Mortensen started with Plumrose, the leadership at the time “had the guts and the foresight to get it going.” Mike Rozzano has been another source of positive influence. “Mike is my boss, but he was always there and empowered me to do the decision making. But he was always involved,” Mortensen says.
“Trust has been a big part of my era at Plumrose,” he says. “I trust the people I work for and those that I work with. And, if I tell someone to do something, they do it and if they don’t, they come back and tell me why not.”
He also pays respect to the plant managers he has worked with through the years. And David Inman, he says is one of best maintenance managers in the industry. “I’m just a small part of a much larger team that knows how to make things happen,” he says. He admits that obviously not every project is completed without challenges and almost no production shift is void of hiccups. When there is a serious problem worthy of inciting an angry rant, Mortensen makes it a point to take the opposite tack: he slows down his cadence and lowers his voice to ensure everyone comprehends his words, which tend to still be influenced by his accent. “I want them to understand every word,” he says.
Mortensen says he’s benefitted from working in plants all over the world. “I’ve been very lucky in that way,” he says. “I traveled to all of the Danish plants for 12 years, when they had problems or when they needed something special done. I traveled all over Europe, Asia, America and South America – for 10 years. You can learn something everywhere you go. Those experiences are the inspiration in what I do today.”
When it comes to competing in the US market, Mortensen says it pays to use your imagination. “We need to see what is around the corner. If you don’t, you’ll have a problem,” he says. He points out that Plumrose depends on operational excellence, based in large part to the fact that the company buys all of its raw material from competitors. “The only way we compete with them is to be better…and we are,” he says with a squinting smile.
A big part of being better means embracing technology, which is reflected in the new plant. Mortensen believes the automated approach to meat processing is the only option for the future of the industry. Companies not adopting the technology and efficiencies available will be left behind. “I don’t see how they could compete without doing it.”
Through the years though, the relationships with competitors have been valuable. For example, Mortensen has been friends with Henry Morris, his contemporary at Smithfield Foods, for decades. “Henry and I talk frequently. We discuss problems and share ideas.”
When the Plumrose plant in Booneville was damaged by fire, Mortensen remembers how neighboring meat companies came to the company’s aid. “I called three of my friends, one in Carolina, one in Iowa and one in California,” but all competitors. “They let us borrow room so we could move our people and slicing operations there and slice in their facility. That’s what I call ‘good friends’. That is a blessing. I hope I leave a similar impression on a lot of people because I will absolutely go out of my way to help them, too.”
People like Henry Morris and Freddy Mortensen admit their work ethics teeter on obsession. “We spend the time on work that it takes to get the job done,” he says. “My wife would say, ‘Freddy works 24-7.’” This is a contrast to many of the people coming into the industry today, who are committed to working specific hours and walking away. Not Mortensen. “I enjoy what I’m doing every day.” He believes if there is ever a day when someone dreads going to work, they should find another job. “I am still missing that day, when I wake up and don’t want to go to work. To me, there are only good days and then there are days that could have been better,” he says.
He tells employees: “I dropped out of school when I was 14 years old. You too, can succeed; it just depends on what you want to do with your life. If you don’t enjoy what you do, why do it?”
He concedes that luck has a tendency to follow people who work for it. Quoting golf’s legendary Lee Trevino, Mortensen says: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
Reluctant about retirement
Mortensen fondly recalls dates that mark milestones for him and the company he’s dedicated his career to. However, one date that looms large and creates some internal conflict for him is coming quickly.
“As a full-time employee, I will stop Oct. 1,” he says, which is just days before his 69th birthday. After that, he has agreed to dial back his day-to-day involvement, working at least 100 days over the course of the next year. Mortensen is more than a little conflicted about retirement. “I can’t tell you why because,” he pauses and taps four fingertips on the table, “I don’t know and I really don’t want to.” But part of him thinks it may be time to slow down; to relax a little, as Inga – his wife of almost five decades – has urged. “I don’t know how to do that,” he says, admitting the extent of his leisure activities include riding his motorcycle and playing an occasional round of golf.
“I can’t say I’m looking forward to it [retirement], not at all. But sooner or later we all probably need to recognize there is an end to everything,” he says.
But perhaps not before his next and final crowning achievement: “building the world’s best bacon plant.” Mortensen says that would be his swan song, “With a little luck…I hope so,” he says of the probability of that project becoming a reality. Meanwhile, he looks forward to moving to St. Joseph, Mo., where he and his wife recently built a house next door to his daughter. He is happy that he will finally be able to spend more time with his grandkids and his own kids, including his son, Bo, the president of Hansel ‘n Gretel Brand Inc., in New York. The transition will likely be bitter-sweet, though.
Plumrose’s Rozzano is grateful for the opportunity to share his career with Mortensen and says he is, indeed, a deserving recipient of this year’s Operations Executive of the Year Award . “Freddy has been an inspiration to all who work with him, and especially to me,” he says. “I am very proud that he has been selected for this award, and even more proud that I can call him a friend.”
Mortensen reflects with happiness and again understates his success. “I’m just a regular dummy who got lucky. I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’m surrounded with good people, I have good friends from as far back as when we were kids. I’ve been healthy, my family is healthy, my wife and I have been married 46 years and I have two kids and three gorgeous grandkids.” He is humbled as he looks at the award bearing his name. “I never in my wildest imagination considered something like this. I thought I was just another American nobody knew. I’m very honored.”