Industry Member Spotlight: Michigan Sugar Company

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Do you know how important agriculture is to Michigan’s manufacturing success?

Thanks to an abundant rainfall and exceptional soils, Michigan ranks as the nation’s second most diverse agriculture producer. Whether it’s dairy and beef, wheat and cucumbers or Christmas trees and flowers, you can find most everything on family farms scattered across the Great Lakes State.

Agriculture businesses take what they’ve grown and convert it into products found on grocery shelves and on dinner tables. This includes Bay City’s own Michigan Sugar Company; converting nearly 5 million tons of sugar beets into more than 1.3 billion pounds of sugar annually.

“I think it’s really neat that we start with a seed and end up with a product on the shelf,” Michigan Sugar President Mark Flegenheimer. “We don’t ‘make’ sugar, Mother Nature does; we just extract it from the beet. Other industries are important, but there’s an added specialty and wonderment in industries that do what we do.”

As a part of Michigan’s history since 1906, Flegenheimer still sees Michigan Sugar and Michigan’s agricultural success as stories untold.

Today, Michigan Sugar Company — producers of Pioneer Sugar and Big Chief Sugar — is the only remaining sugar company in the state and the third largest in America. The grower-owned cooperative generates nearly a half billion dollars in direct economic activity annually in the local communities in which it operates. The company’s combined factories have a beet slicing capacity of 22,000 tons per day and each year more than 125,000 truckloads of beets traverse Michigan’s roads and highways.

“We’re locally grown and locally owned and we want people to come see what we do,” said Flegenheimer, noting public tours of the company’s Bay City factory are offered each year from September to February. “Walking through our facilities is always exciting for me — you can watch a sugar beet just pulled from the ground become glistening white sugar.”

But the process isn’t easy, and the costs can be high, so Michigan Sugar is always looking for ways to reduce costs and improve the process.

“Going from sugar beet to the store shelf is incredibly energy intensive,” explained Flegenheimer. “About 80 percent of a sugar beet is water so there’s a lot of evaporation that has to happen as we work to extract the sugar. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve worked to find better ways to improve efficiencies and fuse new technologies with proven processes. By doing that, we’ve been able to reduce energy consumption by one-third — that’s huge considering energy is our largest cost after labor.”

Manufacturers that are looking to reduce costs and hit their future goals would be smart to mimic the lessons learned by Flegenheimer and his team.

“You shouldn’t try and do everything — understand who you are and what things you can do better than the rest, then focus on those,” Flegenheimer offered. “Don’t sacrifice on safety. Keep that front of mind and make sure your team is watching out for each other. And, most important, be out there telling your story to the community, to young people looking for career paths and to elected officials who may not know what it is your team brings to their community.”