CHESTER, ILL. — Asked for guidance for other food industry executives grappling with how to operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, Tom Welge, president and chief executive officer of Gilster-Mary Lee Corp., offered simple but sober advice.

“Don’t underestimate it,” he warned.

Mr. Welge offered an update on the Chester, Ill.-based business in a July 29 interview with Milling & Baking News just after he was named to succeed his father Donald E. Welge at the company’s helm. Don Welge died April 16 from COVID-19, and numerous other Gilster-Mary Lee employees were sickened, including Tom Welge, Tom’s brother Robert, and Don’s brother Mike. Tom and Mike experienced mild symptoms, but Rob had a severe case and was hospitalized several weeks, including 15 days on a ventilator. The pandemic forced Gilster-Mary Lee to temporarily shut down 2 of its 11 plants.

“It is a very serious threat to your operations if you are not prepared,” Tom Welge said. “It is certainly important to keep things sanitized — your common areas, restrooms, vending machines, lunch tables. Those are important, but in our experience the bigger issue is the person-to-person transmission. So, the use of face masks, social distancing, having a testing and contact tracing protocol in place are very important. We found where outbreaks occurred, we could trace those to people carpooling together, or living at the same address. Education of the workforce is very important. If you’re working in a bilingual environment, you need to make sure you convey that message to everyone. We have outside resources to help. Part of that is developing a written COVID action plan and keeping it updated as the situations change.”

While grain-based foods companies have taken the pandemic very seriously, others have not, and Mr. Welge was even more outspoken on the topic in a recent letter to the editor published in the County Journal published in Randolph:

“COVID-19 is not a joke or a hoax. It is not political. It has attacked Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, and those with no political interests or affiliations. It can be deadly and debilitating to the young and the old. It is not ‘just the flu.’ It is also not over. COVID-19 is still here, but the good news is, the length of time it remains is dependent upon our own actions.”

While all Gilster-Mary Lee’s plants are operating currently, Mr. Welge said the company, like much of the food industry, continues to face numerous challenges.

“Getting people to come back to work, getting people to apply,” he said. “We’re at a point where demand is still very strong, and it’s very difficult to get employees.”

In terms of how well Gilster-Mary Lee is meeting the strong demand, Mr. Welge acknowledged the company needs to make additional progress.

“We’re not where we want to be,” he said. “Our customers have been very understanding. Our employees have gone above and beyond to assist. I think they understand how important it is to do what we are doing. Our suppliers have been very supportive as well. I think we’ve done a good job of recovering from difficult times in the April-May time frame.”

One of the nation’s largest co-packers, Gilster-Mary Lee also is responding to heavy inquiries for new business.

“Because of the supply challenges the whole industry is facing, both national brand and store brand, there is a lot of unmet demand, from where we sit,” he said.

In addition to labor shortages and capacity constraints, supply chain interruptions have been a challenge for Gilster-Mary Lee, Mr. Welge said.

“Generally, the ingredient supply chain has been stronger, but we have had orders pushed out,” he said. “We hear from our suppliers that the issue is labor.”

Regarding ingredients, the issues have been sporadic and light, with occasional delays in shipments, Mr. Welge said.

More problematic has been securing adequate packaging on a timely basis. Plastic packaging, including squeeze bottles and plastic containers, have been especially challenging. Mr. Welge said large supplies of plastic packaging are thought to have been diverted to COVID-related purposes. Other types of packaging, including carton and roll stock have been difficult to find at times as well.

Many consumer-packaged foods companies facing strong demand have lessened the number of stock-keeping units they produce amid the pandemic, in an effort to maximize overall production.

“We have, too,” Mr. Welge said. “We have worked with customers to identify particular SKUs that just aren’t efficient to produce given the constraints that we have. And the customers have been very engaged in discussions with them, making decisions to get them the most product as efficiently as possible and to keep product on the shelves. That may not be over, depending on how everything goes. We’re hoping all those are temporary decisions we’re making.”

Gilster-Mary Lee will mark its 125th anniversary in business this month, and Mr. Welge described the current situation as the most challenging in the company’s history.

“We’ve been through a lot in our history — business challenges, floods, all kinds of things,” he said. “This has been the most universal, long lasting and with so many unknowns.”

The business difficulties compound what has been a very tough time personally for Mr. Welge.

“It has been certainly a very challenging, emotional time we have been through,” he said. “I am very fortunate to have a strong family, faith and friends. That is what personally got me through that.”

Mr. Welge’s brother Rob is recovering steadily but slowly.

“He is doing well,” he said. “He was fortunate. He had a terrible battle he went through with the virus. He is making good, steady progress. It impacted him very hard. I’ve heard people say for every one day on the ventilator it’s a week of recovery. I would agree with that.”

The death of his father has inspired Mr. Welge and others at the company to rise to the occasion.

“Having lost the leader of the company and the leader of the family so unexpectedly is challenging,” he said. “I feel like he taught us every day. We’re now at the point we have to implement those things he taught us. I think we’re doing that. Our organization has really come together well. There is a lot of support from the communities where we operate, including our customers and our suppliers.”

For the last 25 years, Mr. Welge worked closely with his father.

“When I came home from law school in 1995, I did what a lot of young people — I moved back in with my parents,” he said. “So, I was living with him, working with him and traveling with him. I said, ‘Dad, married couples don’t spend this much time together.’ We had a real good relationship. He was a good boss and taught me a lot.”

Letter to the Editor 

Dear Editor:

My father, Don, was 84 when he became an early victim of the coronavirus in our region. He was healthy and had the energy and resilience of someone half his age. COVID-19 didn’t care. He lost his battle with the virus just over three months ago. COVID-19 kept us from being by his side. 

COVID-19 is not a joke or a hoax. It is not political. It has attacked Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, and those with no political interests or affiliations. It can be deadly and debilitating to the young and the old. It is not “just the flu.” It is also not over. COVID-19 is still here, but the good news is, the length of time it remains is dependent upon our own actions. We can fight back. Are we willing to accept changes in our lifestyle in the short term to save lives and prevent further damage to our economy and nation?

We could learn a lot right now from “The Greatest Generation,” the one that fought and won World War 2 on the battlefront and the home front. Those Americans understood we were “all in this together,” and the more we came together and acted together, the quicker we would all emerge out the other side. They were issued ration books, allowed 3 gallons of gas a week, bought war bonds, and sent their sons and daughters off to war, many of whom never returned. I doubt that many of that generation stopped doing what was necessary because it was inconvenient.

We are being asked to socially distance, change some of our activities, and wear a mask when we must be in close contact with others (less than 6 feet for extended periods of time). That is not to suggest these changes aren’t disruptive. They most certainly are, but we should measure what we are being asked to do vs. the sacrifices made by many Americans before us. 

For now, we must learn to live with COVID-19. Our lives must go on, and we must keep our local and national economies moving forward. This can happen, if we recognize the risks we face and take the appropriate, simple, and effective steps to protect ourselves, our families, and others.

Tom Welge

Chester, IL