Clabber Girl 2012 anniversary

Tour: Megan Marvin conducts a tour of the Clabber Girl Museum celebrating the 120th year of operation on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

Guest speakers mentioned a handful of Terre Haute business ventures and civic projects during the annual Groundhog Day Economic Forecast at Indiana State University on Tuesday.

The city’s planned downtown convention center got cited as a point of progress by Gerry Dick, founder of Inside Indiana Business. Potential exists for defense-sector industry investments in Terre Haute, thanks to the presence of the Indiana Air National Guard 181st Intelligence Wing, said Jim Staton of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s international division. 

And, Saturn Petcare — a German-owned company expected to open a production plant here later this year or in early 2021 — helps make Vigo County one of 82 Hoosier counties with at least one foreign direct-investment venture, Staton added.

Yet, the longest spotlight fell on a product that’s been manufactured in Terre Haute since 1899. It’s an example of the economic crossroads at which the community stands. Cornerstone factories and employers are changing or closing, with hopes that a mix of advanced manufacturing jobs and health-care and education employment will become the new normal.

For all but the past nine months, Clabber Girl Baking Powder was produced under the Hulman & Co. name. New Jersey-based B&G Foods bought the Clabber Girl brand for $80 million in cash. The sale effectively ended the Hulman family’s 169-year business connection with Terre Haute. Such a legacy appealed to B&G, a company that has doubled its roster of food brands in the past five years. B&G intends to stay in the city where Herman Hulman and his employees turned Clabber Girl into a household name, company reps said at the time of last May’s sale.

That assurance got rocked a bit two months later, when B&G announced the layoff of 25 Clabber Girl employees. In that July announcement, B&G said there were no plans to close or move the Terre Haute operations, which now employs approximately 175 people.

At Tuesday’s Groundhog Day event, B&G’s CEO Ken Romanzi told the crowd of business people gathered in ISU’s Hulman Student Union that his company not only wants to stay in Terre Haute, but also hopes to move production of other B&G lines to the facility on North Ninth Street.

The Hulmans built their operation along that block in 1892. The Clabber Girl complex has been modernized and diversified in the 21st century, boosting its workforce from 50 to nearly 200, and adding the popular Bake Shop and restaurant, museum and art gallery. The core product, Clabber Girl Baking Powder, holds a 90% market share.

Many of the 20-plus long-time brands acquired by B&G were “under-valued” or needing imbued with new life. “Clabber Girl didn’t need revitalizing,” Romanzi said Tuesday. “Their team did a fantastic job.”

Clabber Girl’s production structure is unique among B&G’s businesses. “We don’t have any facility like that,” Romanzi explained after his Groundhog Day presentation, conducted by the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce and co-sponsored by the Terre Haute Savings Bank and ISU. Clabber Girl’s gravity driven production lines could be adapted for additional B&G food products. The company’s brand line ranges from Green Giant to Cream of Wheat, Ortega, Snackwell’s and dozens of others, including most recently Clabber Girl and its Rex Coffee.

“[Clabber Girl staffers] do such a wonderful job, we’re looking to move more [production] here,” Romanzi said. “We’re looking to put some more things into the facility, so we’re looking for Indiana to be a home for a long time.”

Also, Clabber Girl’s existing online marketing system exceeded that of B&G. Thus, Clabber Girl is now the base of B&G’s online marketing. “So we wanted to center our online marketing efforts with the folks that were doing it here.”

The Terre Haute operation’s capability and history impress Romanzi.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a manufacturing facility that’s doing the same thing it was doing a hundred years ago,” he said. And yet, “when you’re there, it doesn’t feel like it’s 100 years old.”

Indiana remains the state with the highest concentration of manufacturing, which is experiencing a slowdown nationally. Numerous economists have noted the manufacturing decline, including Rose-Hulman’s Kevin Christ and ISU’s Robert Guell. 

Christ and Guell co-authored the 2020 Terre Haute forecast for the Indiana Business Research Center. Their report wasn’t connected to Tuesday’s Groundhog Day event, but it explains that though Terre Haute’s economy is less manufacturing heavy than some Hoosier metros — with only one in five jobs in that field — this community could feel the effects of a national manufacturing downturn because those jobs are among the town’s best-paying.

The city needs manufacturing or financial services firms to relocate here to drive the local economy after a construction jobs surge — fueled by the building of the downtown convention center and east-side casino — to avoid 2020 and 2021 being “the last good employment years for a while,” Christ and Guell wrote.

Statewide, Dick and Staton speaking at Tuesday’s event noted some prime manufacturing expansions in several regions announced in the past year. Saab will build a $37-million facility to produce Air Force trainer jets in West Lafayette, creating 300 jobs. Fiat Chrysler will invest $400 million to retool a transmission plant in Kokomo to produce hybrid engines. Toyota will pump $700 million into its Princeton plant, generating an additional 150 jobs by 2022, Dick reported.

“Those are all projects that could’ve gone anywhere,” Dick said, “but they chose Indiana.”

Of course, Hauteans are ready to see more employers choose Terre Haute, as well.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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