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CJ Bio America expands

By Staff | Nov 9, 2018

Luke Palmer, CJ Bio America senior operations manager, poses in front of the plant, 1946 Harvest Ave., recently.



As CJ Bio America continues to expand its operations in the Iowa Crossroads of Global Innovation industrial park west of Fort Dodge, it is adding another amenity to benefit its approximately 200 employees.

A 10,000-square-foot fitness center is being built on the northwest corner of the property, 1946 Harvest Ave. It is a separate building from the plant.

“Personally it has been a dream of mine to have a fitness facility here,” Luke Palmer, senior operations manager, said recently. “I have worked at places that have fitness facilities. It’s great for morale, great for recruiting, and great for employee health.”

Justin Saathoff, fermentation operator, gets to work at CJ Bio America recently.

The new facility will include a gymnasium to be used for basketball, volleyball, and tennis. It will feature a weight lifting room with ellipticals, treadmills, and free weights.

Rooms for a golf simulator and ping pong tables will also be available.

Palmer is a Fort Dodge native. He worked at Boehringer Ingelheim for about 16 years.

Palmer said the benefits of a fitness center are just as much mental as they are physical. It was something he learned while working at Boehringer Ingelheim, a company that underwent numerous ownership changes while he was there.

“One of the best things I remembered about that was we had a fitness center and a basketball court,” he said. “Every day at noon a group of people would get together and play basketball or lift weights or go for a jog, and more important than any physical attributes, it was just fellowship. It was a time and place for people to get together outside of the work they were doing and just have fun together.”

He added, “Breaking down barriers is more important to me than anything else. That will be the biggest benefit for us and of course the physical attributes of it. Just the time. You are with your work family more than you are with your family in many instances, so you have to have time to enjoy each other too, not just work together.”

Palmer said Lance Choi, CEO of CJ Bio America, shared the same vision as him for a fitness facility.

The equipment will be free to use for employees and their registered dependents, Palmer said.

Construction on the fitness center began earlier in the summer. It is scheduled for completion later this month.

While the finishing touches are being applied to the fitness center, another group of contractors are busy building a $53 million addition on the other side of the property.

That work began in April with an expected completion set for sometime in the first quarter of 2019, according to Palmer.

The expansion will allow for the production of an amino acid called L-Threonine. It is used as an additive in livestock feed.

The initial output of L-Threonine will be 20,000 metric tons. Palmer said the L-Threonine will be in powder form.

“It will allow us to add additional fermentation, refining, and warehouse capacity for that new product line,” Palmer said.

The main product already produced by the company is called lysine. Lysine is an amino acid for swine and poultry feed. It aids in the health and growth of animals, Palmer said.

According to Palmer, the lysine is biologically grown through mass fermentation.

“We start with a bacteria and that bacteria ferments much like yeast ferments to make wine,” Palmer said. “It grows and grows and grows, not in size, but in quantity of cells. In the refining process the lysine is removed from the cell wall of those organisms and are refined.”

Two co-products are made as a result of the refining process.

The first is a soil amendment used on cornfields within a 60 mile radius, Palmer said.

“It replaces anhydrous ammonia,” he said.

The other is a protein biomass. That is sold as a supplemental feed additive.

The addition to the plant will lead to about 20 new jobs being created in production and production support.

“We have already hired some of them and they are being trained in their various disciplines,” Palmer said. “At any given time we could have 300 contractors on this site for the project, so that’s good for the local economy as well.”

The existing plant, which is the company’s first production facility in North America, cost about $323 million.

Palmer said in the coming years, the company will continue to grow.

“The goal for this site is to be the flagship for CJ Bio in North America for our bio business,” Palmer said. “In order to do that we need to be able to have the entire amino acid portfolio that we make globally. This is just one step in the long term plan of having multiple product lines here in Fort Dodge.”

CJ Bio America’s parent company is CJ CheilJedang, a South Korean food company based in Seoul. It manufactures food ingredients, food, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

CJ CheilJedang employs about 45,000 people worldwide.

According to Palmer, the company has four components: bio business, entertainment/media, food/food service, and logistics.

The plant in Fort Dodge is considered bio business.

Outside of Webster County, the other major bio business plants within the company are based in China, Indonesia, and Brazil.

CJ Bio America began production in Fort Dodge in November of 2013. About 60 operators were hired during the startup phase. They were sent to Brazil for two-and-a-half weeks for training.

The CJ Bio America logo displays the letters CJ, accompanied by three petals. The petals represent health, joy, and convenience.

Palmer, who was hired by the company in 2012, said he’s enjoyed witnessing the growth of the business.

“When I joined, no one really knew what CJ was,” he said. “There just wasn’t a lot. I would say the biggest thing that has happened, CJ has really networked itself well into the community and supporting the community. I grew up in Fort Dodge. I have been here my whole life. What I notice is how forward thinking Fort Dodge and Webster County, and really Iowa, has been to grow this industry because the benefits of that are seen.”

He added, “On the business side I have noticed a really great effort on the local side, and the Growth Alliance to know everything we need to know to be successful. When we first began, the market was really low, but in a matter of two years, we became one of the most successful plants. We have some of the best employees within CJ.”

Palmer said the company hasn’t experienced some of the workforce challenges other business have locally.

“I hear that workforce is a challenge, yet we went over 3,000 resumes when we started hiring people for this company,” Palmer said. “To me that doesn’t wane of a worker shortage. Then I hear there is lack of a skilled workforce. But then I have been in different jobs throughout my life and every single job I’ve had to be trained for that job. So really is there a truly trained worker just out there waiting that’s going to come in here and hit the ground running, no. So I don’t see any challenges other than overseas competition. And that’s just something we can’t control.”

In terms of the United States’ trade negotations with countries like China, Palmer sees that as a positive step for the industry overall.

“In many respects, currently the tariffs being applied, especially in China, they are challenging for industry in some ways if they want to buy steel and aluminum to build a structure,” he said. “But the long-term benefits of having a more equal playing field in competing with a country like China, where they can manufacture things at a mere fraction of what we can manufacture because they don’t pay their workers well, they don’t have safe work environments, and they don’t have regulations- it’s beneficial for companies in the U.S. trying to do it right to have an equal playing field in terms of tariffs to help us get to that long-term vision.”

The history of CJ CheilJedang/CJ Bio America

CJ CheilJedang was founded in August 1953 as a sugar and flour manufacturer. It originated with the Samsung Group, as their first manufacturing business.

Post-Korean War, the company wanted to provide opportunities for society, according to Palmer.

“At that time South Korea was devastated by the war,” Palmer said. “Many people didn’t have the basic stables of life. CJ began an industry of fermenting sugar, to make sugar. That not only provided a commodity for the people of their country, but also provided many people with a job.”

In the mid-1990s, CJ CheilJedang separated from Samsung to becomes its own entity.

CJ CheilJedgang focused more on food service, while Samsung focused on electronics.

“The company still has very close ties to Samsung,” Palmer said.

According to Palmer, CJ got its start with the mission of helping others.

“The founding principle of the company’s founding father is to help society,” Palmer said. “Every business is designed to make money, but the core reason for starting CJ CheilJedgang was to help society.”

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