By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
The departure of four Enid-based vice presidents at AdvancePierre Foods raised some questions this week about the local facility’s strength in the company.
Vice presidents Brian Hayden, Geoff Helm, Frank Merritt and Peter Dillingham have left the company, or are in the process of leaving. All four have Enid ties and strong leadership roles in the community.
There is no reason to fear, said AdvancePierre CEO Bill Toler and Paul Tolenson, vice president for human relations. Tolenson has been in Enid every week for the past three months putting together plans for helping make Enid’s largest employer grow.
Toler said the company is growing in Enid and will continue to do so. In the last 12 months, the company invested in a high-speed line, which increases efficiency and jobs. That was placed in the largest plant in the company, the Enterprise plant in Enid, Toler said.
Tolenson said there always is transition with a merger. Advance Food Co. and Pierre Foods merged in 2010.
“When companies come together like this there is always some transition,” he said. “The company has gone from two separate companies with about 2,000 employees each to about 4,300 employees, 10 manufacturing facilities.”
Two of the vice presidents, Hayden and Helm, left the company to pursue business interests in Enid. Hayden said this week that he was talking with Kyle Williams, of Hammer-Williams, and liked some of the things Williams was planning, so he decided to join him.
Hayden gave notice in early May he was leaving AdvancePierre to pursue other opportunities, and he and Helm both worked with the company to make their transition as smooth as possible, he said.
“We all — Geoff and I and Bill and Paul — worked through the transition. We didn’t want anything to be disruptive and to make the transition as smooth as possible,” Hayden said. “Kyle is involved in some things and has some growth plans, and I decided I could be part of that and use the knowledge I’ve gained in my career to apply to his situation.”
Hayden now works for one of Williams business interests and helps support all of his business entities.
Tolenson said he had a nice conversation with Hayden and he expects to remain friends with all four of the former vice presidents. He said their leaving was “very amicable.”
“We treat people with respect and dignity, and their exit was handled very well. There is no animosity at all,” Tolenson said.
Tolenson said it is important to realize what the company is doing in terms of growing and active recruiting. AdvancePierre has established a program to attract talent from a 35-mile radius of Enid and brought on a staffing services company that is dedicated to the company. AdvancePierre now has 2,000 associates in Enid and will add more, Tolenson said. The company currently is hiring for positions including supervisors, coaches, maintenance managers and warehouse managers due to continued growth.
Dillingham was the last to leave AdvancePierre. Both Dillingham and Merritt have ties to the Allen family, founders of Advance Food, and friends believe they eventually will work for them in some of their other business ventures. Merritt is on vacation, and according to friends, plans to take a sabbatical to look for the best offer.
Mark Allen, a member of the Allen family, who along with the McLaughlin family founded the company, said Hayden, Helm, Merritt and Dillingham were important to their families.
“They were extremely important to the Allen-McLaughlin families. They did a tremendous job,” Allen said.
One recent Advance-Pierre hire locally is Mark Porter. He will be vice president of operations, and his family is from Oklahoma and all have attended Oklahoma universities.
“He thinks it is a homecoming. He has property and dealings not far from Enid,” Tolenson said.
“That’s the big picture. The individuals you refer to — I think it’s fair to say — two of the four moved to other opportunities for them,” Toler said. “They talked to us for several months to work through it the right way, and we were able to recruit a talented individual and transitioned a senior role with Mark Porter, who is an Enid native and attended Oklahoma University. This is a homecoming story.”
Tolenson said AdvancePierre is committed to Enid and is active as a corporate partner with the United Way of Enid and Northwest Oklahoma and Vance Air Force Base.
“We’re gonna rock this place,” he said. “Our presence is growing, not shrinking.”
The Enid facilities represent half of the company production facilities. AdvancePierre has 10 manufacturing facilities, and five of them are in Enid, Tolenson said.
A meeting Tolenson attended in Enid Tuesday morning showed him the company could hire 100 hourly associates almost immediately.
“That’s not hypothetical, that’s actual openings,” he said.
AdvancePierre had 22 military veterans fly in or drive to Enid to interview for several main positions in five facilities. If they hire half of them, they will move to Enid, Tolenson said.
The orientation process for new hires includes a tour and a full day of orientation with managers, and it has all been done within the last three months to build the work force in Enid, Tolenson said.
He said in just the past year, AdvancePierre has spent $11 million in capital and moved a significant amount of business from Iowa to Enid, including about 200 jobs. There are 20 million pounds of product each year going through Enid.
“This is grow baby, grow,” he said.