VINELAND — Progresso is one of the oldest names in South Jersey manufacturing, and thanks to innovation and growth it remains one of the most successful.
A company and its brand are living things that move, expand, change and combine as they adapt to the needs and tastes of the market and society.
The life of Progresso began in 1905 in New Orleans, as an importer and distributor of olive oil. Today it thrives as a food producer, making millions of cases of soups each year at its large plant on West Elmer Road.
The nation’s biggest food companies recognized the value of Progresso’s brand and production four decades ago. Since 2001, it has been part of General Mills, which manufactures products in 15 countries and markets them in more than 100.
In this past year, the Vineland plant also has been a star in a General Mills program to improve the environmental sustainability of its operations by 2015.
The corporation set several goals in 2005 and made them more ambitious in 2010: reducing packaging volume 40 percent; using 35 percent less fuel for shipping; reducing solid waste by half; cutting greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent; and reducing water and energy usage 20 percent each.
The General Mills Vineland Progresso plant made dramatic progress toward those final two goals in the past year.
Scott Perkins, an engineer there, said the plant operators saw an opportunity for water recycling.
“We have a can cooling process here. Before the soup can be labeled and to prevent further cooking, we cool them down with water,” said Perkins, 30, of Vineland. “Previously, we would cool the cans down and send the water right down the drain.”
About a year ago, the plant designed and installed a system to reuse the cooling water and recapture the heat from the cans of cooked soup.
Cooling the soup takes the water up to 165 degrees. Once that heat is removed, the water can be reused to cool down the next batch of soup.
The heat is captured by a heat exchanger and used for other purposes at the plant, including preparing the potable water that is used in making the soups.
Perkins said the system saves about 56 million gallons of water a year, reducing the plant’s usage of city water about 15 percent.
Conserving the heat saves 57 billion BTUs of energy a year, he said, cutting the plant’s usage 16 percent and avoiding the equivalent of about 3,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
Plant manager Jeff Williamson called the project a textbook example of the kind of improvement managers seek.
“The system was an organic idea from within the plant, executed by a team of executives without any disruption to plant operations, and the end product achieves the goal and saves the plant money as well,” said Williamson, 44, of Haddonfield, Camden County. “And then the recognition is great for the team and the plant as well.”
That recognition came first from parent General Mills, which included the Progresso Vineland water recycling project as a case study in updates on progress toward its sustainability goals. The project helped the corporation achieve an 11 percent reduction in water consumption in 2011 — more than halfway to its goal.
Then Progresso’s corporate peers in the New Jersey Business & Industry Association gave the plant its Environmental Quality Award, the NJBIA Award of Excellence that honors “outstanding work to preserve or enhance the quality of the environment in New Jersey.”
Williamson said companies in the association share ideas such as the recycling project. “We get ideas from them, and hopefully they’ll take this water process and spread the word around and do comparable things.”
The dramatic improvement in water and energy usage shows what’s possible at long-established manufacturing operations. Progresso built the current Vineland plant in 1970.
The soup already had been on for 20 years by then, and the founding Taormina and Uddo families had incorporated in 1927 as Progresso Quality Foods.
In 1942, they opened their first Vineland plant on Chestnut Avenue, and began producing minestrone, lentil and pasta e fagiole (pasta and bean) soups for Italian-American markets in 1949.
The families sold Progresso in 1969, and since then it has been owned by some of the biggest names in U.S. food production, including Pet Inc., Pillsbury and now General Mills.
Williamson and Bridget Christenson, spokeswoman for General Mills, wouldn’t say how much soup the plant makes or discuss manufacturing processes for competitive reasons — perhaps influenced by the proximity of Campbell Soup Co. just 40 miles away in Camden.
In 1999, during the 50th anniversary of its soup operations, a company spokesman said the plant produced 14 million cases of soup a year.
Retail sales of Progresso soups grew 8 percent in 2012. The brand is part of the Pillsbury USA division, which had 18 percent of General Mills’ U.S. retail sales in fiscal year 2012.
U.S. retail accounted for $10.5 billion in sales, the bulk of the company’s $16.7 billion in sales globally for the year. Net earnings were $1.6 billion.
Williamson said there are still plenty of opportunities in the soup business.
“We’ve got hundreds of initiatives under way, to drive value to consumers and reduce waste in operations,” he said. “You, as a consumer, really don’t care how we make the soup as long as you get a quality product at the end. We get to reinvest those savings to further our business.”
Some changes are visible on the supermarket shelf.
“We have a new product line called Recipe Starters. We provide a base and you can add your own, different ingredients,” Williamson said.
And also watch for new flavors in Progresso’s line of Light soups this year.
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