Continuous Improvement

A key part of success for Carolina Turkeys comes from constant upgrades and expansions of its Mt. Olive, N.C., plant.

At a staggering 700,000 square feet, Carolina Turkeys’ Mt. Olive, N.C., processing plant can produce — and has produced — nearly every kind of turkey product imaginable over the years. So when the company decided to re-enter the case-ready market after a several-year absence, the transition was challenging, but far from impossible.
“When we first started looking at tray-pack and how we wanted to put together the product line, we realized we were getting into a market that didn’t have room for another ‘me-too,’” says Mike Bliss, vice president of operations for Carolina Turkeys. “We wanted to create a new standard for tray-pack, what we have come to call our ‘gold standard.’”
That standard included producing a line of products that were low in bone, calcium and fat, had good flavor and state-of-the-art packaging, all while maintaining the company’s status as a low-cost and consistent-quality producer.
The company's tray-pack area has the capacity to run ground turkey in several different sizes, three types of dinner sausages (sweet Italian, hot Italian and bratwurst), breakfast links, fillets, and burgers. The burgers are produced with a hand-formed look, adding a point of differentiation to the product.
“When we put the project together, we spent a lot of time up front discussing with our business partners what they were looking for, as well as what the consumer and the customer was looking for,” Bliss explains.
Yet, the tray-pack area is only one place where Carolina Turkeys’ plant is changing. Elsewhere, two new batch ovens were recently installed. A new individually quick-frozen (IQF) line is starting up to increase the company’s capacity for multi-purpose oven (MPO) products by 15 percent and improve yields. A new chub turkey machine also was added earlier this year. Bliss estimates that the company will spend about $10 million in total capital this year.
Typically, Carolina Turkeys spends an amount equal to depreciation. About three-quarters of that sum is targeted toward associate safety, food safety, environmental issues and maintenance of the existing business, and the remainder is spent on continuous improvement, be it cost reduction, improvement to the product from a performance standpoint or a similar expense.
“We recognize that technology is changing daily, that customers’ needs and the needs of our associates are changing daily,” Bliss says. “We have to reinvest in the business if we want to stay ahead of the competition.” The company has spent over and above its annual budget when opportunities to grow the business have arisen. The tray-pack renovation, for example, cost $3 million above the capital plan, but management decided the opportunity was worth the cost. That renovation started back in the evisceration department, in an effort to bring a better raw material to the tray-pack area.
Core values
Carolina Turkeys operates under five guiding principles: associate welfare, food safety, continuous improvement, customer satisfaction and community involvement. When major renovations within the plant take place, all of those principles are kept in mind.
The plant was originally designed and built to accommodate the production of whole-body turkeys, which is a miniscule part of its output now. In order to produce its current group of products, major changes have been made to the facility.
Bliss joined the company in late 1999, and shortly after, the company began a 50,000-square-foot expansion to produce value-added products. “The expansion allowed us at the time to change most all of our value-added lines in the plant, to incorporate food safety into every step of the process, to incorporate ergonomically friendly workstations, and to eliminate non-value-added activities through the use of conveyors, tables and dumpers,” Bliss notes. The kill, evisceration and de-boning parts of the plant have improved over the years but remain basically intact.
C. Dan Blackshear, president and CEO of Carolina Turkeys, says that the plant is probably about twice the size it was when it opened. “We were fortunate that this plant is sited on a very large piece of property, and we haven’t been restricted by roads, railroads or structures that keep us from expanding in any direction,” he adds.
Because the company’s processing focus has changed over its 20 years of operation and the plant has had to adjust with the times, Blackshear says there are some things that would be done differently if the company could rebuild the plant from scratch. Still, he says that the product flow is very efficient, and that the plant is a large reason why Carolina Turkeys has been able to remain a low-cost producer.
Blackshear gives much of that credit to Bliss and his team. “Mike is a great operational person,” he says. “He’s given us great leadership, and he and his operations team have been able to keep product flow very good.”
On the wall of his office, Bliss keeps a chart detailing the company’s fill rates. In 1999, it was at 98.01 percent. With six consecutive years of growth, it reached 99.2 percent last year. “We value providing our customers with product ordered, on time, and in the quantity that they ordered, day in and day out,” he says. “Our fill-rate goal for this year is 99.6 percent.”
As part of the company’s core values, Carolina Turkeys invests a considerable amount into its people, as well. The company is currently in pursuit of becoming a Star Site in North Carolina, which would recognize the company as one of the safest places to work in the state. The hourly leadership team is required to attend up to 80 hours per year of training ranging from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, to problem solving, to conflict resolution.
“I’ve always been a believer that the only true competitive advantage a company has [is] its people,” Bliss notes. “Everybody can have the same equipment or design the same processes.”
Big, but versatile
Despite the size of the facility, Carolina Turkeys doesn’t fill it with the largest, highest-capacity equipment around. “We have built our success on flexibility and service to the customer,” Bliss notes. “When we look at putting together a particular process, we don’t necessarily look for the biggest piece of equipment so we can run large batches.
“We recognize that the consumer and customer needs are very diverse today, and that diverse needs require our processes to be very flexible. Yes we can run large batches, but we also can run a large variety of products,” he adds.
With 2,500 employees at the facility working three shifts — two production, one sanitation — the plant’s cook capacity is about 3.3 million pounds a week. It can produce about 160 million pounds of cooked turkey breasts alone per year. Employees work five days a week, but during the company’s peak season from the middle of June through the middle of October, an extra day of production is added to some departments, such as further processing.
The only processing that takes place outside of the plant is slicing, which is done in a small facility in nearby Kinston, which employs 31 associates. The logs are produced in Mt. Olive and sent via truck to the slicing facility. It produces sliced meats for both the deli and foodservice industries, and despite its small size of 20,000 square feet, it can produce about eight million pounds of product per year.
When live birds arrive at the Mt. Olive plant, they are sent through the kill and evisceration process, which starts at 11 p.m. each night. Carcasses then go into the company’s drag chillers, where chilled water is re-circulated over the birds for more than six hours. By the time they emerge from that process, the temperature of the carcasses is at 40 F or lower.
The birds are hung and ride across a rail/scale system, which sorts the turkeys by weight. Some birds that fit within a needed weight category are then sent to the whole-bird or bone-in breast processes. The remaining birds go into de-boning and further processing.
Both the kill line and the de-boning line run up to 80 birds per minute. The front half and back half are separated, and the drumsticks and wings are removed, as is the breast meat and fillets.
Once the meat has been de-boned, it can go to several different areas. For example, there is a raw-roast department, primarily for Carolina Turkeys’ foodservice business, that has the capacity of 15 million pounds per year.
The tray-pack area was developed with in-line processes, removing much of the handling as possible. The boneless meat is ground up, and a bone-removal system further enhances the quality of the product. That meat is then run through carbon dioxide mixers to help drop the temperature of the product, and additional refrigeration has been installed in the facility to maintain that temperature. “We are striving for maximum shelf life,” Bliss explains. “Our minimum standard is 19 days, and we are working continuously to achieve that and more.”
The in-line system takes the meat from grinding through mixing and blending, and then on to the stuffing department into a modified-atmosphere packaging machine. The off-line products, which include the sausages, links and burger patties, are run through a stuffer and linker or patty former, depending on the product. The surfaces in the entire grinding and mixing department are polished to reduce friction associated with the drag of the meat as it moves through the process.
“We feel like we’ve put together a tray-pack area that puts us equal to if not better than our competitors in the industry,” Bliss proudly notes. “I’m confident to say that our system is second to none in tray-pack.” NP