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Miller marks 30th year in Albany

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- On this date 30 years ago, the local Miller Brewing plant, built for some $300 million to help quench the world's growing thirst for beer, shipped the first batch of locally brewed Miller High Life to customers across the southeastern United States.

Many of the plant's more than 1,200 employees, who were hired by Miller to produce the company's products at a strategic location selected from among 246 hopeful cities, cheered as the beer started to flow from Southwest Georgia to points throughout the region.

The years have brought dramatic changes to the manufacturing process of the beverage known as the "Champagne of Bottled Beer," as well as to the local Miller plant. The company is now called MillerCoors after the October 2007 merger of SABMiller and the Molson Coors Brewing Co. Miller itself is now a subsidiary of South African Breweries PLC, the Johannesburg beer giant that purchased the historic Miller business in July of 2002 for $5.6 billion.

In Albany, the work force has been pared to 600, and the plant that once ran seven days a week now operates on a five-day schedule. Many of the original employees who were hired to operate the plant are nearing retirement age, a phenomenon that, according to plant officials, could see a turnover of around 25 percent of the work force over a three-year period.

But Miller's 30th anniversary in Albany brings with it a renewed sense of purpose as new plant manager Tim Dill seeks to make the facility one of the top breweries in the country.

"I'm very competitive, and the bottom line for me is that I want to win every day," Dill, who has managed the local plant since September, said. "My goal is to make this the best brewery in the industry. Thirty years from now, I want to be sitting here talking to you about this plant's 60th anniversary."

A FAMILY THING

Miller's introduction to the Albany area was an arduous process, one filled with triumphs and tragedies. But in the years since then-Albany Mayor James H. Gray announced on March 31, 1978, that the city had won in its bid to bring the bewery to Southwest Georgia, the company has indelibly stamped its logo on the heart and soul of the community.

George "Buz" Busbee Jr., whose father was governor of Georgia while the 246 hopeful cities waged their campaigns to lure the brewery, was one of the plant's very first hires. Now MillerCoors Albany's employee relations manager, the younger Busbee says the plant is a part of his family heritage.

"It's a family thing for me," Busbee said. "In fact, there were primarily three things that brought Miller Brewing to Albany: water, geographic location and (Gov.) George Busbee. That's why it's so important to me that we bring in the next generation of employees who will work hard to keep this plant going."

That's part of the reason Dill was brought on board as plant manager. With an expanded budget of 9.2 billion barrels of beer on the company's books for the plant next year -- the equivalent of just more than 46 billion cases of the beverage -- the new head man says his crew must learn to work smarter and more efficiently.

"We've got intelligent, talented people working here; they know how to make beer," Dill said. "What we have to do, though, is work on the little things that will allow us to improve in the areas of safety, quality, service and cost. Our goal this year is to work more and get even better at what we do."

154-YEAR HISTORY

In 1855, master brewer Frederick J. Miller purchased a struggling brewery on the outskirts of Milwaukee for around $2,370. In November of that year, Miller sold his first quarter-barrel of beer for $1.75.

The company that now bears Miller's name marked its 154th anniversary this year by celebrating the second anniversary of its union with fellow brewing giant Molson Coors Brewing Co. The resulting MillerCoors organization now racks up more than $10 billion in sales a year.

The plant in Albany, which joined sister Miller facilities in Milwaukee; Fort Worth, Texas; Fulton, N.Y. (which closed in 1994); Eden, N.C., and Irwindale, Cal., 30 years ago, brought new life to a Southwest Georgia city that was invigorated by the addition of the millions of dollars the brewery pumped into the local and state economies.

Built for some $300 million on 1,707 acres of land that had once been an air base for the Air Force and Navy, the 1.2 million-square-foot facility was at the time of its construction the largest beer-producing facility ever built. Shortly after the March 1978 announcement of Miller's decision to build in Albany, Gov. Busbee and other state and area officials joined then-Miller President John Murphy for an April 11 groundbreaking ceremony.

New CEO William K. Howell came to Southwest Georgia for a Dec. 6 topping-out ceremony later that year, and Milwaukee-based Granau Construction battled employee unrest and protests -- many sparked by the death of a worker at the plant -- to finish the project by mid-1979.

After training and a trial run, the beer started flowing in early November.

LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY

"I feel like I've grown up here," Packaging Team Leader Joe Mykyten, one of Miller Albany's first hires, said. "I heard about co-workers' kids being born over the years, and now I'm working with some of those kids. We've been through the whole life cycle here.

"When we started production, we literally were 'Laverne and Shirley' manufacturing beer. Now, with advancements in technology and equipment development, it's a whole new world. But for me, it's still fun to come to work every day."

Sue Casey, who has put in her 30 years in the company's packaging department and still has the first bottle of beer produced at the plant, said the technological advancements haven't necessarily all been good.

"Everyone here was close when we first started," she said. "There was a lot more manual labor, but everyone worked together. Sure, the work's easier now in some ways, but I think we've lost a little of our spirit over the years."

That's an area that Busbee says is steadily improving since SAB's purchase of Miller. The South African company's World-Class Initiative program has encouraged workers to embrace a multifaceted personal improvement concept within the plant.

"Through the SAB initiative, our workers do not just operate the machines in the plant as they did in the past," the employee relations manager said. "There's been a huge cultural shift. Our employees now are computer-savvy; they bring more technical skills to their positions. They have a more mechanical aptitude, which allows them to do more in their jobs day after day.

"The changes have been more structural than physical; there's more communications now among the teams before each shift. I think maybe over the years as our workers got complacent, they drifted away from the company's core principles. Now we're headed back to the basics."

GULF NARROWED

Among the changes is the development of the Focus Improvement Technician teams, headed by team leaders Tim Kretzer and Dan Douglas, both of whom have worked at the plant for 30 years.

"There's more involvement by the folks on the floor," Kretzer said. "In the past, those were the people who basically did the same thing day after day after day. If they were called into a manager's office, it usually meant they were in trouble.

"Now, the operators are called in to share their expertise and their ideas. There's still a gulf between management and the hourly employees, but it's not nearly as wide as it has been."

And, Douglas notes, there is not the bitter divide between union workers and management.

"There was the sense of a lack of respect for union workers in the past," he said. "Now, there's more of a sense that we're all getting paid by producing quality products. There's more respect."

Technology, such as the development of robots that actually load the packaged cases of beer onto trailers for shipping, have also changed the work environment in the plant.

"That was a huge change for us," Annie Singletary, who has worked in the plant's packaging department for her 30 years with MillerCoors, said. "When you're one of the ones loading those cases onto the truck, you appreciate that kind of technology."

Of course, 30-year packaging maintenance mechanic Zell Scott reminds younger workers every now and then that they can't discard the old ways entirely.

"One of the young guys picked up a 5/16th bolt a couple of weeks ago, and he said it wouldn't work," Scott said. "I told him to spit on it, and he looked at me like I was crazy. I told him when you don't have grease, you have to use what's available."

NEW BLOOD COMING

With the expected mass turnover of employees coming -- as many as 120 to 150 are expected to retire in the next three years -- Miller is preparing for a substantial influx of new blood. That, Human Resources Manager Fred Smith notes, is not necessarily a bad thing.

"As we look to replace our retiring employees, we're looking for people with a strong mechanical background, with more maintenance skills," Smith, a former Cooper Tire employee who has worked with MillerCoors for four years, said. "Since the closure of Merck, Bobs Candies, Flint River Textile and Cooper, among others, we're actually bringing on the cream of the crop in the area.

"It's unfortunate that those plants had to close, but we're getting some tremendous applicants with the skills we need. Between the new initiatives brought on by SAB, the merger with Coors and the new employees we're able to hire, we have an opportunity for unprecedented success at this plant. We have an opportunity to reach the upper limits of our capability. It's a really good time to be here."

Which certainly bodes well for the plant's next 30 years.