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Fairmont Foods ready to grow

Continued growth at Fairmont Foods is the goal for David Ross, left, human resources director, and Mike Downs, president of Downs Food Group which owns the local company.

FAIRMONT — Last year, food manufacturing was nearly four times more concentrated in southwest Minnesota than the state as a whole, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). It was one of the few industries that added regional jobs during the recession, increasing employees by 4.7 percent, and continuing that growth over the recovery years.

Fairmont Foods Inc. is a bona fide example of that proliferation.

In January 2015, then-owners of Fairmont Foods announced the plant was closing, putting about 150 full-time and part-time employees out of work. Within 30 days, Downs Food Group of Mankato signed a letter of intent to purchase the plant, and ownership changed hands in a seamless transition on March 17, 2015.

“It was a perfect fit for us,” said Mike Downs, president of Downs Food Group. “When we started here, we had the equivalent of 100 full-time employees.”

That number has since blossomed to 350.

“We’ll take 400,” said David Ross, human resources director for Downs Food Group. Ross handles human resources duties for more than 1,000 employees at Madelia, Minnetonka and Fairmont.

“We’ll take 450 employees,” Downs said.

Some people believe that food manufacturing provides only entry-level jobs at low wages, but Ross is quick to debunk that misconception.

“We have job openings at every location. We need people at every level,” he said. “General laborers are hard to find.”

Other occupations also are need in food manufacturing: packagers, cooks, machine operators, food processors, quality control, office and more.

“We’ll hire every mechanic we can get,” Downs said.

“That goes for all locations, not just Fairmont,” Ross said.

According to DEED, Hispanic or Latino workers comprise about 30 percent of the workforce in food manufacturing, while only counting for about 6 percent of the region’s workforce.

“At each of our plants, 50 percent to 60 percent are minorities,” Ross said. “All of our employees are hard working and dedicated. Our people put in a lot of hours, and we try to keep it a family-oriented business.”

He estimates that employee turnover runs about 20 percent.

“We’ve got a core group that makes up 80 percent of our employees, and then there’s the 20 percent that turns over,” he said.

Most new hires start at $11 per hour, or $12 on second shift, with a 60-day probationary period. The company is proud of its benefits package which includes vision and dental coverage as well as medical coverage.

“They have to show up, be on time and be willing to work,” Ross said. “If they have a skill or affinity to learn, we’ll move them into a semi-skilled job, like a forklift operator, and we provide on-the-job training.”

The company also provides additional educational opportunities at South Central College in Mankato with a group of employees set to start this month and more next month. They attend classes five hours a day, twice a week, for 13 weeks, all at Fairmont Foods’ expense. Internships for college students and other programs also are offered.

Part-time workers also are needed, with a spotlight on retirees who want to stay active and earn a little extra cash, but don’t want full-time work.

“We’ll work around people’s schedules,” Ross said. “It’s a competitive business. You do what you can to attract and retain quality employees.

More information on Fairmont Foods is available online at www.fairmontfoods.com or by calling (507) 238-9001.

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