The supply chain at Ardent Mills continues to strengthen the company’s capabilities after it was formed nearly one year ago from a joint venture between ConAgra Foods, Cargill and CHS Inc. To drive simplicity and better transparency, the company is transitioning to one common ERP system that it expects to have fully operational by next spring.
“The legacy companies that formed Ardent Mills were strong competitors right up until May 29 of last year,” Vice President of Supply Chain Jeff Zyskowski says. “We have formed a joint venture and are working through all those things that go with starting up a brand-new company.”
Ardent Mills offers a broad range of flours, mixes, blends and specialty products with a coast-to-coast network of 43 community mills, three bakery-mix centers and a specialty bakery. Headquartered in Denver, the company operates as an independent joint venture of its three parent companies: Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods; Minneapolis, Minn.-based Cargill; and St. Paul, Minn.-based CHS. Ardent Mills’ mission is to maximize the combined capabilities and experience of its parent companies to bring innovative flour and grain products, services and solutions to the marketplace.
The company taps the market knowledge, transportation logistics, consumer insight, wheat sourcing capabilities, food ingredients and culinary expertise of its parent companies. “[Ardent Mills] is about many parts coming together to make a new and stronger whole,” CEO Dan Dye says. “It’s about a collective strength, history and ability to deliver quality and nutritious ingredients and carry that legacy into the future.”
“Prior to our first day in business, the legacy companies that formed Ardent Mills were fierce competitors,” Zyskowski shares. “From day one, our senior leadership team was focused on culture and establishing the four core values we live, work and breathe.”
The first core value is trust and working to earn each other’s trust every day by being honest, forthright and candid. The second value is serving others with understanding by having a respectful, caring mindset at work that helps make everyone successful. This value also includes effectively serving our customers and communities.
The third value is operating with simplicity, which Zyskowski says, is a major focus in the supply chain to remove complex barriers and allow people to do their jobs well. The fourth value is safety, which emphasizes the importance of each employee returning home in the same condition in which they arrived, and making food-safe products for its customers. “These four core values are front-of-mind for 2,400 people in Ardent Mills and set the foundation for our success,” he adds. “We are also nourishing what’s next with our customers, the communities where we live and work and our partners.”
A major focus for Ardent Mills has been training every new headquarters team member to understand the broad scope of the business and the industry. A monthly “Milling 101” class explains how wheat is brought to grain elevators, shipped to the mills, is milled and then shipped to the customers.
A representative of each division of the company presents an overview of its functions in the Wheat 101 course. “These courses are a total of seven to eight weeks and get everyone up to speed on the business, their role, why they matter and how their position affects other people,” Zyskowski explains. “Training has been a really important component for us.”
Ardent Mills moves about 1,000 loads per day via truck and rail primarily to the North American market, feeding about 100 million consumers per day. “The functions I oversee work to support that, including transportation and logistics, which ensures we select the right modes at the right times to service our customers,” Zyskowski says. “Our goal is to really build very strong trust with all the customers we serve by shipping every load out of every mill, every day safely to the customer.”
There are three sub-functions – truck, rail and logistics – within the supply chain to get products moved safely and efficiently. Ardent Mills’ logistics group specializes in transporting products and overcoming emergency situations.
“If there is an emergency load or something happens at one of the mills resulting in downtime, the logistics group can leverage our broad network and pull flour from an alternate source to make sure all the loads go out,” Zyskowski explains. “We have a laser focus on customers. They are our first priority.”
To move its product, Ardent Mills partners with six primary trucking companies and leases railroad cars for a three- to five-year period. “We have dedicated carriers that have been with us for quite some time,” Zyskowski notes. “They work very closely with the mills, our supply chain and our customers. We regularly involve them in conference calls to talk about what’s happening and logistics issues so we can ensure flawless customer service.”
Ardent Mills’ has created long-term relationships with its ingredient and transportation suppliers and treats them as extensions of the company. “Just about all our suppliers have been to our headquarters to meet with us as we strengthen working relationships,” Zyskowski adds. “We discuss goals and objectives to make sure we have alignment and can work together on key initiatives to serve our customers.”
Ardent Mills’ 25-person customer service center is the voice to its customers beyond the sales team. The team takes customers’ orders and changes, and works with the plants to schedule loads to the facilities. Supply chain analysts work on network optimization. “We want to have the least-cost and most reliable supply chain in place to effectively service our customers,” Zyskowski says. “The group analyzes all the bakeries, mills and plants to determine if it is shipping from the right location, for example. We find the least-cost, most effective solutions.”
The company manages its inbound grain inventory and some mills hold millions of bushels of grain. However, there is minimal finished goods inventory because Ardent Mills is a made-to-order business. “We typically only have a couple days’ worth of storage on outbound finished goods, so everything we make requires tight communication with logistics to have vessels in place,” Zyskowski explains. “Much of what we produce gets shipped within a 12-hour window.”
The final division of the supply chain is the procurement group that buys packaging and ingredients and manages inventory and equipment at Ardent Mills’ facilities. “We need to be sure we have the right ingredients at the plant and the right inventory at the right facilities to ship to the customer,” Zyskowski notes.
Because Ardent Mills was formed from a joint venture, its supply chain has been operating under two different ERP systems that have made efficiency and transparency challenging, Zyskowski says. “Over the past several months we have been operating two separate ERP systems running in parallel,” he adds. “We are going to one common system and are super excited about it. It will allow us to readily aggregate data and understand exactly where we are with efficiency and transparency.”
The first step in integrating its supply chain to one ERP system will begin in June, but the full transition is a three- to four-phase process. The second phase will begin in October and the company expects to be completely operational on one system by next spring. “That one ERP system will help us become more efficient,” Zyskowski notes. “We are always going to be focused on continuous improvement. One ERP system will be great for our customers.”