David Jackson has seen more than a few facility expansions and reconfigurations in his 29 years with Simmons Prepared Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs.
Jackson, the company’s COO, said the previous projects were hampered by lack of space. Trying to fit another chicken production line into an existing building where there wasn’t enough room to fully expand was problematic.
Simmons’ latest and soon-to-open facility outside of Decatur in northwest Arkansas had none of those limitations, which is fortunate because it is checking in at 315,000 SF. When the company decided a few years ago it needed to increase its fresh and frozen chicken production, Jackson said, the decision was to either expand its existing Decatur plant or start from scratch somewhere new.
Fortunately for Simmons, after it decided to start from scratch, there was a likely location just 2.2 miles from the existing facility. Simmons bought the 800-plus acres for $14 million and then went about designing what Jackson called a “50-year investment.”
When it was announced in September 2017, Simmons said the project would cost $300 million and create 1,500 jobs, and company officials say those projections remain about the same. The Arkansas Economic Development Commission said at the time the project would qualify for a number of state grants and tax rebates.
“We originally looked at expanding the original facility, but there really wasn’t room on that site,” Jackson said. “We are constrained by a railroad and a creek and public roads. We realized we needed to step out and build a new facility.”
Jackson said the company was seeking a minimum of 400 acres to accomplish what it wanted; it looked at sites in Oklahoma and Missouri before settling on the property in its backyard. Jackson said the site already had infrastructure in place to handle the utility needs of the new facility.
“Those factors made sense for us,” Jackson said. “We wanted a large enough plot of land to put the plant on so that we have room to grow. This site checked all the boxes.”
The beauty of the site’s expanse is Simmons was able to go to the drawing board and almost literally have room for any and every thing the company could conceivably want at the new facility.
Of course, that didn’t end up happening, but Jackson said the first thing Simmons looked at, and saw through in design, was the layout of two important pieces of business: the company’s equipment and the company’s employees.
“We started with everything possible and then we had to peel back some of those things,” Jackson said. “We started with what do we need from a production output and then we went about it two ways.”
Jackson said that after all the production lines were laid out for optimum efficiency, the company studied how to best serve its employees at the same time. Jackson said a lot of attention was paid to break rooms and to what are sometimes overlooked details, such as where employees enter and leave the building and how to make those areas accessible and welcoming.
“One, we laid out our equipment and our flow ideally: ‘How would you lay this out if you were to have no building?’” Jackson said. “We laid out the equipment flow and then asked, ‘How do we make this best for our people?’
“We continued to move things around until we got to what we thought was an optimum design for the equipment and the people and then we basically wrapped the building around that.”
Jackson said that is why, if seen from above, the facility does not look like a typical chicken processing building.
“[I]t is not a square box,” Jackson said. “It gets narrower and wider because we were intentional about the product flow and the people flow. That was a luxury very few in the poultry industry have because we had all the space we needed. We weren’t constrained by the existing facility.
“We were always constrained by the existing building, what can we fit and how can we fit it? This was a total reversal of that.”
State of the Art
Simmons officials said the new facility would have the latest environmental technologies, first-class office space and modern production. Jackson said all new processing equipment was acquired for the new facility and was being installed before the grand opening in October of this year.
Simmons said approximately 800 employees at the current facility will move to the new plant. Because it is just 2.2 miles away and located on state Highway 59, the job location change shouldn’t prove to be inconvenient for any employee.
► The 25 Largest Commercial Contractors - Arkansas-based companies ranked by 2018 revenue.
The new equipment and extra employees will be Simmons Foods’ attempt to take advantage of the growing demand for prepared foods. Jackson said the current facility in Decatur can process approximately 1.7 million chickens a week; the new plant will be able to process 2 million — a 17.6% increase — but the birds the new facility will handle will be 33% bigger, 8 pounds compared with 6.
“When you look at the size of the bird and the head count, it is about a 50% increase,” Jackson said of the plant’s production capacity.
Jackson said the acquired property had an unexpected benefit in that there were a couple of chicken farms on site. Jackson said Simmons is turning one of the farms into a research center with two-way glass so visitors, whether they are farmers, customers or vendors, can watch the activity of a working chicken farm without interfering with the animals.
“When you walk into a barn, all the animals look at you,” Jackson said. “We set up a room where the chickens don’t know you’re there. It’s a good tool to teach new growers about what it is about animal husbandry we are looking for. There were side benefits to the site beyond the plant site.”
Jackson said Simmons has been showing its workers the new facility during construction and every time he walks through the new plant on his regular twice-monthly visits, he is amazed by how much progress has been made.
“We are all ready to get into the facility today,” Jackson said. “There are 1,000 details that have to get taken care of, and there is tons of activity going on daily.”