Opinion | In small ways, Kellogg has been leaving Battle Creek for decades
Few communities in the United States have instant name recognition and association with their local, home-grown company. Battle Creek is certainly one of them. Go anywhere and the name Kellogg’s is instantly associated with Battle Creek.
Kellogg Company, which has been in Battle Creek since 1906, began with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s accidental creation of corn flakes when a batch of granola was left out overnight in his Battle Creek Sanitarium kitchen and then rolled into flakes the next morning. The discovery became Michigan’s and the nation’s greatest entrepreneurial food success stories when his brother, W. K. launched the cereal industry. The rest is history.
After more than a century in Battle Creek, and only a few hours after the Summer Solstice on June 21, 2022, the company announced it was moving its corporate headquarters to the Chicagoland area. The company was being divided into three new companies, with the cereal headquarters remaining in Battle Creek, somewhat softening the blow, but it’s still painful to many. Whether it will still be called Kellogg’s remains to be seen.
The reaction in Battle Creek has been mixed. For some it was expected. For the last several years there has been a slow exodus of Kellogg jobs and executives out of Battle Creek, namely to Chicago and Grand Rapids, former Keebler enclaves. Much of the cereal manufacturing has also moved to Mexico and other states. Most of the top management is firmly ensconced in Chicagoland already. During the pandemic it was hard to see much life at the headquarters in downtown Battle Creek. The recent cereal plant strike didn’t help matters much either.
Experts say the move makes sense for the survival and future of the company and stockholders, but it’s a very bitter pill to swallow here. We are after all the Cereal City. We have a symbiotic relationship with Kellogg.
For many it’s a sense of betrayal. Generations of families here are long-time Kellogg loyalists and retirees. Many of them literally built the community, raised families here, supported the schools, and planted deep roots. My family has been in Battle Creek for five generations and we’ve seen the highs and lows of the company.
My family operated a local funeral home in Battle Creek since 1909. My grandfather was proud to take care of W. K. Kellogg and his family when he died in 1951. It wasn’t that long ago, when a Kellogg retiree died, we could call the personnel office – in Battle Creek – and talk to someone who actually knew the deceased. Record keeping was eventually outsourced and you were lucky to get someone fluent in English when you called.
The relationship with the company was personal for many. For years, one of the biggest events in Battle Creek was the Kellogg Annual Meeting. It filled the W. K. Kellogg Auditorium, one of the many gifts Kellogg made to the community. The meeting typically had lots of good news about the company, new products, and some great giveaway items for stockholders and retirees. You never wanted to miss it.
As a child, I remember seeing Kellogg executives involved in every aspect of the community. The top management, the CEO, VPs and many others were in Rotary and other service clubs, serving on the chamber, economic and school boards, and just about every other board in town.
When I was in high school, then-CEO Bill LaMothe was visible and active. I grew up with his children and I fondly remember Mr. LaMothe, wearing his white uniform, officiating our swim meets. He was just another dad.
The world changed in the 1970’s as the company globalized. Location didn’t seem to matter as much, and the community and company grew apart. Several new leaders of the company were foreign citizens and didn’t really understand nor appreciate what the company means to its hometown. Add to that the growing federal regulations from Congress, Labor, FDA, SEC and an alphabet soup of other regulators, changed the tenor of how the company operates.
It appears the new, unnamed Battle Creek Cereal Company will remain here, but for how long, and what’s the future of cereal? Ironically cereal, the product which made Kellogg and Battle Creek famous, now represents less than 20 percent of the company’s profit, and the reason they broke up the company.
Fortunately, Battle Creek has diversified itself beyond cereal. The community has a strong and active federal and military presence, a thriving Fort Custer Industrial Park on the former military base which attracts global companies. Perhaps the community’s greatest asset remains the Battle Creek Executive Airport at Kellogg Field adjacent to Fort Custer. It is the third busiest airport in Michigan with a 10,000 foot runway and plenty of room to grow. The future is in aviation and Battle Creek is ready.
Battle Creek is a town of ambitious, hard-working people who know where we’ve been but are excited about the future. While we are disappointed Kellogg’s footprint will be much smaller, the future is ours to grasp. Times change and so must we.
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