But effort will likely hinge on incentives and faces uncertain conclusion
By Ed Nadolski
Editor in Chief
Echo Lake Foods Vice President and General Manager Jerry Warntjes said Tuesday he’s determined to rebuild the company’s Burlington production facility destroyed by last week’s fire, but just how successful the efforts are will be determined by several factors.
The first order of businesses, Warntjes said, is getting production restored in the areas of the plant that remain, and also transferring some of the work to another company-owned facility in Franksville.
“I intend to get this plant up in a limited capacity ASAP,” he said. “I’ve got to get a business back up and running or I lose it.”
The goal, according to Warntjes, is to continue to serve as many of the company’s customers as possible in an effort to preserve that business to ensure work for the future.
Beyond that, however, the success of the rebuilding effort will depend largely on whether insurance payments and government incentives make it fiscally feasible for the company to rebuild.
“It depends on state and local help,” Warntjes said. “I’m not a believer in corporate welfare, but if the state and county have grants I’m all ears.”
Warntjes said he met with local officials Monday and made it clear the company – which employs 300 in Burlington – will need real assistance, not lip service as it looks to rebuild.
“I was pretty frank with them,” he said.
Since the fire broke out at the breakfast foods manufacturer Jan. 30, Warntjes has been scrambling to chart a course for the company’s future.
“How far we go depends on what they can offer,” he said.
On Monday city officials agreed that the loss of the company would have a far-reaching economic impact on the Burlington area.
In addition to being the city’s fourth-largest employer, Echo Lake Foods is the city’s second-largest sewer treatment customer and fourth-largest water user. Losing that usage, even temporarily, negatively impacts revenue for the local utilities.
In addition, Echo Lake Foods uses services of other local businesses – most notably Air Liquide, which supplies liquid nitrogen for the company’s freezing processes.
“We have no choice but to weather it,” Mayor Bob Miller said of the economic impact of the fire. “As a city we need to take care of those 300 people first and then take care of Echo Lake (Foods). The longer they’re down, the bigger the ramifications.”
City Administrator Kevin Lahner said local officials continue to work with Racine County and state economic development agencies on a package of services and or incentives to help the company rebuild.
Miller said his intent was to convince Echo Lake to remain in Burlington. Now that Warntjes has made that his priority it remains to be seen where the effort leads.
Grants, credits are key
Warntjes said the type of incentives that would be most effective in the effort would be tax credits, grants and low-interest loans.
While such tragedies never come at a good time, this one comes at a time the company was in a growth mode. Warntjes said the company had a goal of $150 million in sales in 2013.
“We’re going to try and pick up where we can and keep going,” he said.
An insurance settlement for the damaged buildings and equipment has not been determined and is still weeks away, Warntjes said.
“We have coverage, but not for everything I’d like to get done,” he added. “Insurance won’t cover my vision for the future.”
Warntjes said the company had plans to add production lines in Burlington and was also on its way to starting its own label when the fire struck.
On Tuesday, however, putting at least some of the company’s displaced workforce back on the job was a top priority.
“We hope to get at least two (production) lines going (in Burlington),” Warntjes said.
He also said some production lines will be temporarily moved to the Franksville facility, which currently employs 200 people and has capacity for more.
“I’m going to retain as many (of the displaced workers) as possible,” Warntjes said.
A rough breakdown of the 300 employees in Burlington is: 60 percent unskilled production jobs; 20 percent skilled maintenance and shipping positions; and 20 percent office and management personnel.
Warntjes said employees should receive their paychecks on Friday for work done up until the fire, which is in keeping with the company’s regular payroll schedule.
While the future remains as smoky as the fire itself, Warntjes said his people are determined to make a go of it.
“We’ve got a tremendous team,” he said. “Everybody’s working day and night to make it work.”