Oak State Products invests in automation, focuses on innovation

by Joanie Spencer
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If you’re a wholesale baker — especially one who’s been in business for multiple decades — you might subscribe to the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But perhaps, as the folks at Oak State Products, Wenona, IL, can attest, reality lies in the inverse.   

Founded in 1956, the former Archway bakery turned co-manufacturer has been in the business of contract baking since 1994, and over two decades, the bakery has seen the consumer trends come … and never really go. In fact, as far back as 10 years ago, the company was meeting demands for health-and-wellness items, clean labels and whole grains. (Click for a slideshow of Oak State)

The difference today, though, is that consumers are expecting the same functions from a host of different products that, a decade ago, didn’t even exist. “Ten years, ago, we made very few of the products we do now,” said Byron Goulding, Oak State president. And Steve Goulding, Byron’s father and the company’s CEO, summed it up quite simply. “New sells, right?”

And to meet customers’ demands for the new products their consumers are clamoring for, Oak State has invested heavily in R&D, state-of-the-art equipment, custom-designed packaging lines and, most recently, a 20,000-sq-ft warehouse addition (including new refrigerated storage), which was completed in July and sets the stage for future growth.

Roots in the Midwest

Oak State Products is really not hard to find. All you have to do is set the GPS for Wenona and drive until you see the bakery’s tower. The 240,000-sq-ft plant sits on the same 26 acres it has for nearly 60 years and, like that tower, has been a pillar in the community for just as long. In fact, the company is still touted as the top employer in Wenona’s home, Marshall County.

Many employees have grown up in Wenona and are community leaders, which makes Oak State’s culture even tighter. Jeff Pickard, vice-president of operations, grew up in Wenona, as did Bob Krischel, plant manager, and Mike Healy, vice-president of business development.

These are employees who each have more than 30 years’ service at the bakery and who also have served Wenona and Marshall County over the years. “Some of them have been fire chief, head of the school board, even mayor,” Steve said. “People see each other outside of work, and they’re more invested in the community — and we are a part of that community,” Steve added.

With the average employee tenure at around nine years, Oak State focuses on staff development. “We put a heavy emphasis on internal training, so we do a lot of promoting from within,” Byron said. “We invest in upward mobility training.”

Investing in product development and automation, Oak State brings these employees up-to-speed. They’re more than just “cookie picker uppers” — they’re seeing more opportunities to become machine operators, supervisors and managers.

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