Zeek Szidon – Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods Inc.
- Written by: David Harry
- Produced by: Victor Martins & Andrew Melson
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
Zeek Szidon wasn’t necessarily having a career crisis at Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods Inc. However, he wasn’t happy with his third-shift job in milling and bagging operations because he disliked the hours and the dust aggravated his asthma.
This was in 1996, and after Szidon gave two weeks’ notice, he had a conversation with company founder Bob Moore, who offered him a job in maintenance, instead. Neither man realized the new opportunity would become a career, but 27 years later, Szidon is director of engineering, maintenance and plant facilities at Bob’s Red Mill.
Along the way, Szidon not only earned a signing supervisor electrician license independently in a Portland Community College apprentice program—he also set up the company’s apprenticeship program conducted in partnership with the PCC’s Trades Division.
Szidon currently supervises a team of more than 50 that’s responsible for keeping the millstones turning and the bagging machines operating as the company looks to double the number of people eating Bob’s Red Mill’s products by 2030.
“We’re producing something healthy the whole world can enjoy,” Szidon says. “It’s very serious and we’re an employee-owned company, so anyone who’s been here for a while, they understand what we do.”
Baking a business
Now headquartered in Milwaukie, Oregon, Bob’s Red Mill grinds a wide variety of baking flours, including vegan and gluten-free options, that are individually suited for bread, pastries, pizza and pastas. It also offers oatmeal and granola mixes, nutrition bars, polenta, quinoa and couscous.
It all began with a loaf of whole grain bread co-founder Charlee Moore baked for her family in the 1960s. It was her effort to provide healthier food, and it led Bob Moore to research grain and flour milling as a business venture. When he located traditional quartz millstones and other equipment at a defunct mill in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he had them shipped to open the first mill in Redding, California, in 1974.
In the late ‘70s, Moore and his wife turned over the mill to their sons and relocated to Oregon. They expected to retire, but bought another mill, instead. Bob’s Red Mill opened in Milwaukie in 1978 and when it was destroyed by an arsonist in 1988, the couple rebuilt.
Szidon and his team helped the company expand again in 2007 by installing electrical infrastructure and production machinery at a 300,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. The facility is complemented by a store and restaurant that are about two miles away.
In 2020, Szidon oversaw renovations of a 400,000-square-foot building the company leased for a distribution center where they also store raw materials. Setting up the warehouse spaces required installing a new sprinkler system, retrofitting lighting to LEDs, upgrading a loading dock door and dock leveler, repairing concrete and renovating 10,000 square feet of offices.
Keep the lines moving
Szidon and his team of managers, electricians and technicians are currently trying to make production line changeovers more efficient. Production downtime can exceed run times because all the machinery needs to be cleaned with compressed air and alcohol, then inspected by the quality assurance teams between runs, he says.
So, Szidon is working with operations and QA members on inspection policies and procedures that reflect the different changeovers, such as shifting to organic products that have greater regulatory requirements.
“We’re also being proactive about when a line needs to be changed over so maintenance can get started as soon as possible,” he says.
Szidon’s team has already installed the upgrades to improve the lines’ efficiency. From 2016 to 2019, they converted the production line to 25 standup packaging machines. Those replaced “form and fill” machinery as Bob’s Red Mill also switched to premade pouches for its products.
The new machines can be set to fill pouches to a selected volume as they pass underneath larger bags of milled flour, oatmeal or granola. All the product information is printed on the pouches, which can also be resealed by customers. Eliminating the product labels and equipment to apply them has also increased efficiency, Szidon says.
Sparking a skillset
With so much of the facilities maintenance and management work handled internally, Bob’s Red Mill also needs licensed electricians who can handle basic repairs and work with live currents, if needed.
Szidon began his apprenticeship at Portland Community College in 2003 and earned a journeyman electrician license in 2007. In 2011, he earned his signing supervisor license. He says he pursued the licenses because of personal interest as well as skill-building.
He’s qualified to work on all aspects of electrical maintenance and installation, including with live currents. In 2013, as he was becoming plant superintendent, Szidon was asked to create Bob’s Red Mill electrician apprenticeship program.
The company is a training agent for the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, or JATC-PCC program, but Szidon says Bob’s Red Mill’s apprenticeship program is open only to current employees who have to have worked with him or his managers to be considered.
“I look for steadiness, strong work ethic and a skill level,” he says of potential apprentices. “They need be meticulous for installation, clean up after themselves and remember to label panels and wires.”
With the combination of classroom work and on-the-job training, apprentices can become a limited maintenance electrician in two years. A plant journeyman’s license takes four years, and the signing supervisor license requires 8,000 hours of on-the-job training to be eligible to test for it. Szidon says 10 employees, including Bob Moore’s grandson, have earned licenses since the program was started.
“I pride myself on creating a team that’s self-sufficient,” Szidon says. “My goal is to better my team members’ lives and to watch them learn and grow.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. V 2023 Edition here.
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