Conversations with Ardent Mills: Building Community
(Image Source: RICK PEPPER • MANKATOLIFE)
What is community, and what is its role in milling? While ingredients and grain-based solutions are at the core of everyday live across our teams in North America, we spoke with Tom Kleist, Maintenance/Reliability manager, and the team at our Mankato location, to see how the secret to Nourishing What’s Next is found through the community partnerships built in and outside of the mill.
Community mills are a huge part of our work. How is that valued by the Mankato team?
When searching for ways to describe the team at our flour mill in Mankato, MN words like flexible, adaptable, and engaged are some that quickly come to mind. The mill, using grind stones, began milling wheat into flour in 1878. In 1879 the stones were replaced with superior performing steel roller mills, resulting in a better milling process, higher quality flour and increased production to feed a growing community. That huge change in the first year set a standard for the team of ultimate customer and community service for the next 140+ years. Even in the early days of the mill, community was important- in early 1880, the first telephone in the county was installed in the mill with a connection to the growing City Hall. In 1908, the community struggling with a rampant Typhoid epidemic, the mill opened up its private water wells to share with the City, keeping residents supplied with clean water. A few years ago, in the Holiday edition of a local magazine in which community members shared their favorite Holiday memories, several contributors expressed their appreciation for the landmark lighting of the “Tree” on top of the mill. We still light them today, and if the lights are not shining Thanksgiving night, I can expect a few reminder calls from concerned neighbors. There is a lot of pride and satisfaction in working at such an historic, old, storied facility in the heart of downtown Mankato.
How has serving been a part of the milling experience?
Serving is one of Ardent Mill’s Core Values (the others being Trust, Simplicity and Safety). Generally, serving Customers is the first thing that comes to mind when a company uses a word like serving as a core value, and the Mankato team does absolutely have a passionate commitment serving their customers. Some customer relationships have been in place for nearly 60 years! The Mankato Team has a history of carrying out flour test trials to mill new commodities, developing new flour blends for customers so they do not have to blend flour in-house, and making process/equipment changes to mill small batches of flour. When approached with a unique request, the team puts in a lot of effort to figure out how to do it. And gets it done.
Through generations of market swings, changing industry trends, varied ownership, and multiple name changes (four different names alone before the end of the 19th century), the team in Mankato today exemplifies Ardent Mills’ core value of SERVING every day. Serving comes in many other forms too, and with that, this team truly holds serving their community and their coworkers in equally high regard. Through the years that mentality has proven time and time again these three categories – customers, community, and team – can only individually flourish if equal, continuous attention is paid to all three. Their secret to long-term serving success has been adaptive thinking and embracing significant and sometimes sudden change.
It sounds like innovation is part of the local community culture.
In a centuries old industry, rich in tradition and culture, with little change in equipment and process over the last 175 years, innovation is still needed. With systems set, it is the people that need to innovate. Mankato has a team of people that are adaptable and willing to do anything asked of them, whenever it’s asked. The culture and work ethic, that started with a spirit of industriousness and need nearly a century and a half ago, clearly lives on today. Importantly, that culture perseveres by relying on, engaging, and respecting the people in that culture. Giving everyone the opportunity to succeed, helps not only the mill but the community to succeed as well. With that, innovation means change and the stresses that come with being willing to change everything on a moment’s notice are a legitimate factor. The teamwork and engagement involved with that innovation and change is awesome to witness. Engagement is not a metric to the team – it’s a necessity. It’s the sum of many factors that add up to being ready and in position to take on any challenge. It’s an overarching commitment to do good for the sake of it being good. The entire team concentrates on doing right because it’s right.
How does being a good neighbor fit into all of this?
Crammed in to downtown “Old Town” Mankato, a neighborhood mix of residential and shopping areas with boutiques, storefronts, shops and small businesses, the flour mill, with grain trucks, flour trucks and rail cars arriving and departing throughout the day, should be out of place. But it’s not- it fits like a glove. And each neighbor has a role in helping the mill be successful. The Mankato Team actively participate with the neighbors in local associations and advocate for them so their businesses can grow. Neighborhood priorities are always viewed through the lens of what’s best for all of us. Recently, the team worked with CityArt Mankato/Twin Rivers Council for the Arts to complete a giant mural on the 135-foot-tall grain silos. The project was intended to improve the aesthetic gateways into Mankato, to beautify the community using public art, to increase the economy and tourism to the Down Town/Old Town area, and to increase civic pride of the community. Much of the work was completed during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, giving the community a rare bright spot of normalcy and goodness.
(Image Source: SARA HUGHES • TRCA MANKATO)
This ability to focus on the people around them – the people who truly make everything go – is something that isn’t found everywhere. In a time when we have every excuse in the world to be distant, this team refuses to forget about what’s important. They are truly remarkable people.
These people are special. They do things differently. They do things right.
Thank you, Tom!
Want to learn more about our network of 35 community mills? Explore our locations in greater detail here.
Image Source: Our cover image for this blog post comes from Rick Pepper (the original image can be found here)