Volume 2 | Issue 2 | Year 2006

The next time that you visit the meat section of your local supermarket, you’ll probably notice that there’s now a lot of pre-packaged and prepared items – beef or burgers that have been marinated, spiced or cooked in advance.

You may look at these items and see a faster way to make dinner. But at Gleeson Constructors L.L.C., an industry leader in the design and construction of food processing facilities and distribution centers, they also see a pathway to considerable new business.

“It’s cyclical, so right now there isn’t much demand for the raw product, but the value-added product is going through the roof,” said Nicholas Obbink, a project manager for the Sioux City, Iowa-based company. “Those would be ready-to-serve and fully cooked items.”

That means that some of Gleeson Constructors’ largest customers, who tend to be in the business of processing red meat or poultry and food distribution, are needing to re-tool their plants or add entirely new sections that are devoted to the preparation and cooking process. “There’s a lot of remodeling of existing facilities, and it can be tricky at times,” said Obbink.

A turn-key contractor

Any changes in the food industry tend to mean additional work for Gleeson, a design-build merit shop contractor, that since its creation more than two decades ago has done work for some of the biggest names in the business, including Cargill, Inc., Hormel Corporation, IBP, Inc., Pillsbury, Seaboard Farms and Con-Agra.

Most of those customers come to Gleeson because of its reputation as a turnkey contractor who can shepherd through a project from the initial design phase through the final construction. “We have a long track record of meeting demanding schedules,” Obbink said.

That track record dates back to 1983, the year the company was founded as a spin-off from Klinger Companies, Inc., which is also based in Sioux City. The firm was originally oriented more toward general contracting, but Obbink said that the firmed eventually focused solely on food processing. Klinger remains a key investor to this day, although others, including the president of Gleeson, Harlan VandeZandschulp, are also involved in the ownership of the company.

Gleeson today employs about 120 people: roughly 15 or so in its main office, including its design engineers, and about 100 other employees around the country. While Gleeson works on jobs from coast to coast, much of its work is done in the heartland regions. The company’s annual sales volume is in the range of $50 million, Obbink said. A ranking that was done several years back by the Engineering News Record placed Gleeson as the third-largest food processing plant contractor in the United States.

Gleeson’s diverse list of jobs include a Red Barron pizza production plant in Florence, Ken.; an ice cream processing plant for Wells’ Dairy in St. George, Utah; the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Marshall, Mo.; an egg processing plant for Michael Foods in Lenox, Iowa, and a chilled dough plant for the Pillsbury Company in Denison, Texas.

Industry upheaval

“Consumer purchasing and the demand for more ready-to-eat options is also driving the construction of new facilities, and/or the renovation of existing facilities,” VandeZandschulp said in a recent magazine interview. “Consumers are now looking for more flavors in different packaging, and more options. The consumer is ultimately driving the change in the construction marketplace for food-processing facilities.”

The last few years have been a time of turmoil within the food industry. There has been considerable consolidation, but the rise of larger food companies has also created some openings that newer niche companies have sought to fill. The upheaval has meant that there is considerable renovation work as well as construction of new plants, and all of that has meant additional work for Gleeson.

“We’re set up well to handle this,” Obbink said, in particular the growth of the niche companies. “We actually tailor better to some of the smaller guys, who don’t have engineering services, than to the large corporate guys.”

One reason for that is that Gleeson Constructors is the only one of the major design-build companies that self-performs its jobs rather than contracting out the main construction work. Obbink said that this approach allows for better flexibility on things such as change orders. “We’re easy to get along with,” he said. The company also has a core of experienced project superintendents, who on average bring some 24 years of experience to the job.

That’s backed up with state-of-the-art technology. That includes computer-aided design through “AutoCAD;” computerized project scheduling through “Sure Trak;” computerized estimating using Timberline Software, and project cost control systems by Timberline that ties accounting directly with Gleeson’s estimating system.

Gleeson also offers complete engineering design services, including site evaluation, design and layout; architectural, structural and mechanical design; process design evaluation; electrical, refrigeration, and vapor barrier design. On the construction side, the company coordinates local building permit and variance requirements, ensures compliance with USDA regulations, provides inspection services, establishes construction schedules to ensure on-time completion, procures material and equipment and then installs the equipment, develops an estimated cash flow for the project, maintains financial and accounting services, coordinates subcontractors and suppliers, and provides start-up assistance.

Safety first

As a specialist in designing and building food plants, Gleeson has long been a leader in facilities that are up to the highest sanitary standards. As stricter government regulations come on line, and with customer awareness of food-safety issues at a high level, the rest of the industry is catching up. “We’re ahead of the curve on most of these things; a lot of it we’ve been doing for 10 years,” Obbink said. “And it’s becoming an easier sell to owners as the requirements have changed. We`ve got a lot of experience because we`ve been doing it that way for a long time – the clean room concept and hygienic air handling.”

Food safety isn’t the only kind of safety that the company cares about. Gleeson also employs a full-time safety director who has worked to improve job site safety and reduce accidents, as well as the company’s insurance rates.

Ironically, the recent run of success at Gleeson is not unlike what’s been happening in the food industry itself. Just like customers at the meat counter, more and more food processors are asking for their new facilities made to order.

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