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Published March 01, 2010, 04:55 PM

Cargill’s Geurts leaves to build Louisiana sugar cane plant

WAHPETON, N.D. — Cargill corn wet milling plant has had but one top manager in the plant’s 14-year history — Richard “Red” Geurts.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WAHPETON, N.D. — Cargill corn wet milling plant has had but one top manager in the plant’s 14-year history — Richard “Red” Geurts.

Geurts was named the plant’s first manager for the corn fructose processing plant when ProGold L.L.C,

ProGold finished building the plant in November 1996 for $260 million. At the time, it was the largest investment in any single agricultural processing facility in the state of North Dakota. After quickly going into debt because of plummeting fructose prices, the then-three co-ops that owned it entered into a 10-year lease with Cargill.

Cargill hired Geurts.

Since then, Cargill’s Team Wahpeton operation has continued to grind roughly 30 million bushels of corn per year and is credited for provides a demand point for the price of corn in the area. The plant has operated almost nonstop since it started, although it hasn’t spun off profits to owners as it originally planned. Most corn comes from 1,700 Golden Growers members, but nonmembers others also deliver there.

Team Wahpeton delivers products — high-fructose corn syrup, corn germ, corn gluten meal and corn gluten feed — to customers in 27 states and five Canadian provinces, making more than 15,000 shipments a year while increasing productivity and improving safety ratings.

Through all its growth, Geurts has been on the job in Wahpeton.

Until now, that is. Cargill announced Feb. 12 that Geurts will be heading south to build and operate a million-ton-per-year sugar cane refinery in Gramercy, La., near New Orleans. In Wahpeton, Geurts will be replaced by Al Viaene, who has been in the Wahpeton leadership staff for the past eight years.

At his new post, Geurts will carry the titles of chief executive officer and general manager, answering to the board of governors for Louisiana Sugar Refining L.L.C., a joint venture among Cargill, Sugar Growers and Refiners Inc. and Imperial Sugar Co. As he emptied his office Feb. 22, Geurts talked to Agweek about his time in Wahpeton and what lies ahead.

A valley home

“When I told my mother I was going to be living in the Red River Valley, she asked if I knew how hard the wind blows here,” he recalls.

Actually, Geurts, had strong roots in the area. He was born in Fargo, N.D. His father was a native of Brown’s Valley, Minn., graduated from what now is called Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he taught in the 1950s. His mother was from North Dakota.

Geurts graduated high school in Mounds View, Minn. He studied business and engineering at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and then into a grain-related career — first at Burdick Grain of Minneapolis, then Pillsbury, then ConAgra.

Just before arriving at ProGold in Wahpeton, Geurts served as a plant manager for A.E. Staley in Decatur, Ill. Geurts says the position was difficult because the plant was large, with noncompetitive costs.

“It needed to make changes in how the plant was physically operated,” he says.

Geurts carried a determined visage, seemingly girded for any problem.

Wahpeton’s challenges were different than what he’d seen before. Labor relations have been trouble-free. The plant has operated continuously attracting little if any public criticism. The transition to Cargill management went smoothly and soon became normal.

“A ‘greenfield’ operation always affords a better opportunity, starting up,” Geurts says. “You can imprint your culture, set expectations upfront. From Day One, we wanted to create a high-performance work environment.”

Geurts says say the Wahpeton plant is a huge team effort. He downplays his own importance, but the walls carry evidence of numerous in-company awards — a “Cargill Best” plant in 2003 and 2007 and an “Industry Week Best Plant” award in January 2008.

Some 70 people at the Wahpeton plant have advanced to upper management positions within Cargill under his time there, which he says is a good record for a mid-sized plant. The company has supported the Wahpeton staff in its community service efforts.

Challenges met

Geurts says one of the things that he’ll remember most about Wahpeton will be the construction phase. He says it’s significant that the plant was completed during severe climate challenges in the winter of 1996 to ’97.

ProGold had done its research well and knew that the building site could be insulated from potential flooding.

“You never know about the collateral things,” Geurts says, recalling the challenge of getting people and products in and out of the plant in severe blizzards.

The plant’s current nameplate capacity is 85,000 bushels a day, or about 30 million bushels of corn a year.

“It’s done, at least in part, what it was designed to do,” Geurts says.

Besides generating a profit, it has helped establish corn as a preferred standard in the rotation on most farms in the Red River Valley and surrounding areas. He says the success of Cargill also has led to an insurgence of export train development.

One of the primary reasons the plant was built in the first place was that corn farmers were looking for a local demand point for corn. Since the plant has been built, corn production in the area has grown by about five times to what it was in the five-year period before the plant starting up.

As for the future in Wahpeton, Geurts says it would be nice to see the plant increase in size, although that may not be in the cards immediately. He says the plant is capable of being expanded, with the right product mix, but says any expansion would be linked to demand, which in the U.S. is related to population.

If Geurts has regrets, they’re relatively few.

“I guess I’d smile more and have more fun,” he says, when asked if there’s anything he’d do differently. “Guys like me tend to get a little focused and a little driven sometimes. Sometimes, that doesn’t achieve the best results you’re looking for.”

Looking southward

Geurts says he’d talked with Cargill officials for several years about the opportunity that might present itself in Louisiana. He was approached with more specificity last year, and a final understanding on the post was completed mid-January. The same week, Cargill started clearing the footprint and putting pilings in the ground.

It’s a fresh challenge.

The Louisiana plant is situated in a region with a more organized labor environment than what he’s experienced in Wahpeton.

“We anticipate finding a good, competent work force,” he says.

One similarity is that there are three owners, each with different expectations of what the partnership will provide them.

The plant is on the outskirts of Gramercy, a town of about 3,600 people, in a parish, or county, of about 22,000. The plant sits on property adjacent to the Mississippi River and has loading and unloading facilities for barge and vessels.

The most significant difference between the two situations is that Louisiana will be a “brown field” deal — building onto the site of an existing plant. Portions will be shut down, and parts of it will be used or integrated into the new business. The Louisiana plant is not a lease.

The old refinery on the site will be shut down, although incrementally there will be an increase in capacity. Geurts says that Cargill thinks there’s “room in the market for the incremental increase in capacity.”

Cargill is partnering with a grower community that gives access to the supply side — the raw sugar coming into the refinery. It allows growers to “look forward with a customer-facing and consumer-facing opportunity,” Geurts says.

“It’s a win for Imperial because it allows them to continue on a site that they have history and time in and allows them to protect their sugar source to feed some of their retail business,” he says.

On the personal side, Geurts says he and his wife, Lynn Larsen, who have lived in Christine, N.D., will be back to the lake place on Otter Tail Lake.

“It’s afforded a lifestyle we’ve enjoyed,” he says of the region.

And there’s the satisfaction and memory of the “passion and excitement about building a plant of that magnitude.”