The 260,000-square-foot Mars Petcare plant under construction at Fort Chaffee should begin ramping up mid-2009 for test runs, with about 50 people expected to be hired by the end of the year, according to George Huelsmann, Mars’ vice president of wet manufacturing.
Mars Petcare announced November 2007 it would build the $80 million pet food plant at Chaffee Crossing and employ 200 full-time workers when the plant was fully operational. At the time of the announcement, the city of Fort Smith estimated the plant would result in an annual payroll of $7.07 million, with the average annual salary around $35,300.
Huelsmann said almost every aspect of the plant construction is on schedule and the plant should be fully operational by November. He said plant officials are hiring people for technical positions — electrical work, equipment controls, etc. — and should have about 50 employees by the end of the year, and at least another 50 within the next year.
Mars Petcare officials have said the new plant will use the latest in technology and processes to produce its high-end dog food lines, specifically a wet dog food sold under the Cesar Cuisine label. Huelsmann said media tours are not allowed because the company intends to keep private its operation at the plant.
The high-end dog food market is seeing some recessionary pressures, according to a Jan. 7 report from Petfood Industry.com. The report noted that U.S. dog food sales were up 11.6% in the last half of 2008. However, the wet dog food market did not see the same gain.
The wet dog food market generated sales of $49.9 million in first half of 2008, and $51.1 million in second half. But the wet food sales increase was derived from higher product prices because 42 million pounds were sold in first half and 41.5 million pounds were sold in second half.
“We can’t ignore that millions of consumers globally are suffering; and we’re hearing more reports of pets being turned in at US animal shelters. The good news is that most pet owners are still feeding their dogs and cats well,” Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor of Petfood Industry magazine, noted in the report.
Huelsmann said the company is seeing a slight slowdown, but not to the degree seen by other players in the market. Also, he stressed, Mars makes “long-term commitments and investments” and the company is confident the Fort Smith plant will have a long future in the marketplace.
State and local officials stepped up financially to convince Mars to build in Fort Smith. The company received $2.2 million from Gov. Mike Beebe’s quick-action closing fund, and other state incentives that totaled more than $19 million — with many of the incentives rewarded only when Mars begins hiring.
The city of Fort Smith agreed to significant drainage upgrades near the plant site that, according to estimates in late 2007, could cost up to $1 million.
Mars Petcare U.S. is a subsidiary of McLean, Va.-based Mars Inc., a privately-held company with $28 billion in global sales in 2008 and 65,000 employees. The pet care operations has 29 facilities and 3,000 employees nationwide.