WATERLOO -- Scott Budak isn't Willy Wonka, but he does run a factory that makes chocolate -- and vanilla, and butterscotch, and a lot of other flavors.

And Waterloo's ConAgra Foods pudding plant will be make a lot more flavors, and a lot more pudding, too, by midyear.

That's when a 155,000-square-foot, $46 million expansion of the 9-year-old pudding plant is expected to be completed. It will nearly double the plant in size and add about 50 jobs to the 75 people already working there.

When the expansion is done, the Waterloo plant will be producing about 70 percent of Hunt's Snack Pack cup snack pudding, manufactured by ConAgra.

"Start-up is still projected for July of this year," Budak said. Ground was broken last June. The present plant, in which the company invested $56 million when it opened in 1998, is 225,000 square feet and has ample room for expansion on its 43-acre site, in the MidPort business park near the Waterloo Regional Airport.

"We're doubling the size of our (production) capacity and will substantially grow," Budak said. A plant in Ohio is in the process of being closed. Waterloo was selected for the expansion over Indianapolis and Menomonie, Wis.

Even before the expansion, pudding production at the Waterloo plant had increased 36 percent since it opened, largely on the initiative of the skilled plant employees who found ways to improve efficiency. The plant staff also has won numerous safety awards.

Waterloo was suggested for the expansion because of its Midwestern location, and the quality skill level of the work force. "The city and the state of Iowa did a good job with the incentives," he added.

The city of Waterloo will provide 20 years of graduated property tax abatements and land for future expansions.

The Iowa Economic Development Board approved $150,000 for the expansion, and the Iowa Department of Transportation is granting up to $300,000 to pave MidPort Boulevard and provide access.

The plant requires what might seem a comparatively few number of employees in proportion to the plant size. "It's a very automated facility.," Budak said. "Due to that automation and the high skills of our folks," the plant is adequately staffed. "One of the other competitive advantages is, because of the skill sets of our people, you have the ability to help drive cost out.. We're constantly modifying, updating, several different things."

The 36 percent production increase over the past nine years "is driven solely from the brain trust off our people," Budak said. "Our manufacturers come here to learn. Not a joke."

Budak said the company hopes to hire locally with the current expansion. "That's going to be a little bit of a challenge for us, to continue to find those top-notch skilled folks," he said, but the area has been able to meet the company's labor needs. He cited ConAgra's partnership with Hawkeye Community College as an asset, as well as surrounding schools. The company is mounting a concerted recruiting process in "the greater Cedar Valley" to find qualified people.

In addition to being able to sample the sweet fruits of ConAgra's labor in local food stores, the company is a major contributor of its product to the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and other sources.

Original plant employee Jeff Johnson of Cedar Falls, who also heads up a Cub Scout troop at Lincoln Elementary School in Cedar Falls, said the plant has contributed to his activities, and aid "it's a big deal" for his Cubs Scouts when he brings contributed pudding.

He and some other plant employees said they like the work schedule and the kinds of work they perform.

The 50 new operator/maintenance technician jobs, as advertised will pay starting wage of $17 per hour during a one-year training period, after which the wage is $20.38 per hour, equating to roughly $47,000 per year under the plants work schedule. Workers work 12-hours shifts for two or three days at a time. Hiring has begun, and with positions anticipated to be filled before the plant opens.

Ideal job candidates will have a two-year technical degree; technical training in the military or seven years documented work experience is required, as well as computer literacy, competency in both math and English; related work experience in a manufacturing facility, preferably in food processing; and a credible and stable work history.

Pudding plant job applications should be mailed to Iowa Workforce Development, 925 E. Fourth St., Waterloo, Ia. 50703, telephone (319) 235-1471.

Contact Pat Kinney at (319) 291-1484 or Pat.Kinney@wcfcourier.com

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