A new plant built the right way

by Dan Malovany
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For the past 16 years, Brandon Heiser has worked in various food manufacturing facilities. All too often, he has heard himself say, “If I built this plant, I wouldn’t have done it this way.”

Buddy, you’re not alone.

As director of operations of AbiMar Foods (formerly Fehr Foods), Mr. Heiser got the chance to do it the right way when the Abilene, TX-based cookie manufacturer ventured into the cracker market. The golden opportunity initially came from Steve Fehr, who hired Mr. Heiser a decade ago and served as his mentor until passing away in a tragic accident this summer.

After buying a bankrupt cookie company in 1992, Mr. Fehr spent years building a successful business. In 2010, he sold it to Colombia-based Grupo Nutresa. One day, a surprised Mr. Heiser finally got the nerve to ask him why. “I’m not the right guy to grow the business,” Mr. Fehr said. In other words, he humbly realized he didn’t have the resources to help his cookie company reach its full potential and to fulfill his vision of entering the cracker category. Grupo Nutresa did.

“Steve believed in operational excellence and doing the right thing. He instilled his beliefs in his company and in everything he did. These beliefs became the competitive advantage of Fehr Foods,” Mr. Heiser said. “Steve was a great visionary who could not only see the future, but he also knew how to make his visions and dreams a reality. He did this with honesty, integrity and unbelievable hard work.”

Mr. Fehr was not a man of many words. “When he spoke, you had better listen because whatever he said was well thought out and very powerful,” Mr. Heiser noted. “During my first couple of years working for Steve, I was constantly amazed by his endless knowledge of baking, equipment and the industry in general. His stories about the many good and bad experiences were entertaining and endless.”

Many of those stories taught a lesson, such as the significance of ensuring a solid oven band was smooth and setting the oven take-off knife properly. Mr. Heiser recalled, “He told me of the time when he had an oven knife cut the solid band. I asked what happened. He smiled and said, ‘It peeled the whole oven band off like a beer can.’ ”

Mr. Fehr served as a key advisor on the new cracker facility. “His experience, guidance and teachings from years prior were all incorporated into the project,” Mr. Heiser said. “I am very thankful Steve was able to attend the plant grand opening earlier this year. It was obvious he was very happy and excited to see yet another one his visions become a reality.”

Steve Fehr and his wife, Vicki, who also passed away in the accident, will be missed by their industry friends.

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