This meat treat manufacturer secured double digit growth with an open-book approach to company performance data.
Although Phelps Pet Products has a 52-year history of producing meat-based pet treats, almost everything about the company is new including its name. A rebranding from Phelps Industries to Phelps Pet Products in March 2019 was the culmination of an intense focus on growth that began in 2014.
Company founder Dick Phelps sold a majority stake in January 2013 to the private equity group that is now known as Granite Bridge Partners. The next year under its new leadership, the company expanded its Rockford, Illinois production space with the addition of an 80,000-sq.-ft. building next door to the company’s original 10,000-sq.-ft. facility. Then in 2016, the company added 40,000 sq. ft. of warehouse and distribution space with a third location in Caledonia, Illinois.
Pictured here is the management team, from left: Scott Anderson, director of operations; Dave Dent, chief financial officer; Rich Bartuska, director of safety, quality and regulatory; and Rick Ruffolo, CEO and president.
With more than 300 SKUs, a non-continuous batch system works well for Phelps.
For the company's meat-based treats, batches start with a frozen block of raw meat. The blocks are reduced to smaller frozen chunks with a Rotoclaw II from Reiser.
Formed product is manually arranged on trays. The trays go on racks and each rack is loaded into one of seven batch ovens from Alkar for cooking and dehydrating. The ovens hold between nine and 15 racks. “We average a couple hundred pounds of cooked product per rack,” Anderson says. “Our average cook time is 9 hours so typically we get two turns of the ovens in a day, but it depends on the formula, the protein content and, most importantly, the shape itself.”
Trays used for organic products are segregated, as is production. Each day starts with the “cleanest” products because everything has been cleaned and sanitized the shift before. Products with ingredients considered to be allergens run at the end of every day.
Phelps recently upgraded its product testing devices to include a moisture analyzer from Arizona Instruments, Inc., Chandler, Arizona. Aqualab TDL instruments from Meter Group, Pullman, Washington, measure water activity in samples.
Here, Quality Manager Maria Fessler tests treat samples for water. "We spend a lot of time making sure that the product never gets to come over into the packaging side of the building until quality control says it can come over here," Bartuska explains.
After product is cut to size it moves on to packaging. Phelps currently has four packaging lines: two form-fill-seal systems from Heat and Control, Hayward, California; one Roberts IMP Series pre-made bag line from AlliedFlex Technologies, Sarasota, Florida; and a new high-speed form-fill-seal packaging line from Mamata, Montgomery, Illinois.
Product comes into the packaging area in tubs and is manually spread out on conveyer belts. This step ensures proper product spacing and allows for one final visual quality check before bucket conveyers bring the products up to Ishida multihead weighers for portioning.
Key leaders at Phelps participate in daily stand-up meetings to review and gauge the company’s progress toward its target goals. This daily performance review becomes both strategic and tactical. Metrics are shared with employees during monthly all-staff meetings and each production line in the plant has a communication board that identifies the goals for each shift.
“What I like about all that we track is that it’s the facts — not an interpretation,” Ruffolo says. “It’s a snapshot of where we stand at this moment and if we’re heading in the right direction. We’re OK with identifying internal issues. That’s how we prevent them from becoming external issues.”
Private equity backing from Granite Bridge Partners has allowed Phelps to invest in its processes, ingredients and workforce. One investment was a new high-speed Mamata packaging line, which was a huge step forward for Phelps in terms of output, capacity and flexibility, Ruffolo added.
The equipment side now supports higher output and growth. Something as simple as purchasing additional racks, trays and bins has also helped by improving the flow of product and helping production stay ahead of packaging.