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Published: Friday, 10/26/2001

Loss of cereal maker stuns city

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Hours after hearing that General Mills, Inc., will close its Toledo cereal plant within a year, third shift worker Mark Byczynski started his resume.

“I got my name, my address, my phone number down. I couldn't do more than that. I'm screwed up in the head,” Mr. Byczynski lamented of his state of shock over Wednesday's announcement that 459 jobs would end. “I've got 17 years of making cereal. Where's it gonna get me?”

That sentiment was echoed by several workers yesterday as city officials said they want to travel to the Minnesota headquarters of the site's new owner to urge use of the cereal plant and port authority board members pointed fingers as to why the company was lost.

International Multifoods Corp. announced yesterday that it will purchase the General Mills Toledo plant for $11.5 million. Under an earlier agreement, Multifoods was only to lease the dessert mix plant from General Mills, which would continue to make cereal in the other plant on the same grounds.

Neither Mr. Byczynski or any of his colleagues gathered around a bar near the plant yesterday morning after their third shift ended had hopes of finding better paying positions than their $20 to $25 an hour jobs, which include a generous health insurance plan and pension.

General Mills has said it closed the plant in order to present a proposal it thought would be less threatening to federal regulators considering its plan to buy the Pillsbury Co.

All but one of the workers interviewed yesterday said they would take a job that paid less, with some saying

Jon Nowak, who is a trapper, said he might expand on the small amount of animal control work he's been doing on the side and Bruce Janis, who started work toward a real estate license months ago, said he hoped to work in that field.

“Basically this is all I've ever done,” said Rick Stansfield, who has been employed at General Mills for 25 of his 43 years.

To several of the workers, the most damaging blow was the word that they will be given no special preference for jobs at other General Mills plants. Mr. Byczynski and Mr. Nowak both said they would be willing to move for a comparable job. The closest General Mills plants are in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Buffalo.

That policy is a change from the 1980s when Mr. Nowak and Mr. Janis had moved from Buffalo to Toledo when supervisors told them their jobs would end there.

About a third of the employees in Mr. Byczynski's area were apparently so upset after the announcement early Wednesday morning that they didn't return for their shift late that night. The company, which had counselors on hand, said those absences would not be counted against employees, Mr. Byczynski said.

Mr. Stansfield said political leaders should step in to save the cereal plant jobs. But Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said all the city can do is attempt to lure new employers and encourage businesses that are already here to expand, largely by offering tax breaks and help with construction of roads or water lines.

Mr. Finkbeiner and councilman Bob McCloskey said they want to travel to International Multifoods Corp.'s headquarters in Minnesota to urge leaders to expand into the cereal plant.

The dessert mix plant, which General Mills uses to produce Betty Crocker products, will be converted to produce similar Pillsbury products, most of which are now made at a Pillsbury plant in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Mr. Finkbeiner held out another hope to cereal workers saying Toledo is one of two cities being considered by an unnamed company that would employ about 450 people, paying many of them about $17 an hour. The city's latest payroll figures for General Mills is $36.5 million in 1996, when it was receiving a tax abatement. That figure included the wages of about 120 employees at the Betty Crocker dessert mix plant that will continue operations.

General Mills gave up the tax abatement when officials pointed out that it wasn't living up to its employment promises to the city. At a Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority meeting yesterday, members questioned whether officials could have prevented the closing.

Ray Medlin faulted city council members who protested General Mills' tax abatement, saying that might have contributed to the decision. George Ballas said he had heard last year that General Mills was considering pulling out of Toledo, and wondered why the Regional Growth Partnership didn't take action.

Don Jakeway, the agency's executive director, said company officials had advised the agency about potential downsizing but the closure was a surprise.

“We were meeting with them and never did we hear the whole operation was going to go down the tubes. We were there.”



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