In the days of glass bottles and morning milk trucks, a dairy was a sprawling line of clanking equipment in a building big enough for hundreds of employees.
Times have changed. These are the days of newcomers such as J.T. Wilcox and his pint-sized, high-speed factory in Cheney that soon will process enough milk in a week to deliver a gallon to every home in Spokane County.
In April, Wilcox, a fresh-faced 34-year-old, will open the first fluid milk bottling plant built in Washington in 24 years.
It also will be one of the smallest and most efficient in the state. The nearly $4 million venture, nestled in the woods off Mullinix Road southwest of the Eastern Washington University campus, will have the capacity to fill up to 200,000 one-gallon plastic jugs weekly.
The facility has 18,000 square feet of floor space, smaller than some of Spokane’s biggest homes, and will be operated by just 12 people.
“We won’t spend too much time in the office,” says Wilcox, the great-grandson of the founders of Wilcox Farms Inc., a family business that operates a dairy in Roy, Wash., east of Olympia.
The arrival of Wilcox Farms threatens to trim sales of competitors such as Darigold Inc. in North Spokane, Broadview Dairy downtown and Safeway Stores dairy in Moses Lake. Wilcox Farms already sells to big customers such as Price-Costco, IGA and Food Services of America.
But whether the company uses the Cheney plant to attract more customers may depend on the wisdom and courage of Wilcox, a “Man of La Mancha” fan who isn’t afraid to take on challengers.
At first glance, the perky Washington State University history major seems an unlikely candidate to shake up the market. But the businessman with a fireplug build may have the right stuff.
“He’s a little young, but he grew up in the business and had a pretty good teacher - his dad,” said Doug Marshall, vice president for Darigold in Seattle. “I wish he worked for us.”
Wilcox was 5 years old when his father, Jim Wilcox, put him to work clearing brush on the family farm. As a teenager, Wilcox took his turn calving in the night and feeding cattle in the rain. Wilcox later lived in the Farm House fraternity at WSU, where he graduated in 1985.
“He used to bring Wilcox chocolate milk to college and have us try it,” says fraternity brother and Rosalia farmer, Arlin Paulson, who has gone to work at the dairy. “He was a great guy and extremely creative.”
Wilcox returned to the family business and worked his way up the ranks. By the time he was 30, Wilcox was building a Moses Lake farm for 300,000 egg-laying hens and a herd of heifers for dairy farmers.
Wilcox says the company chose Cheney for its second dairy because of its location to customers and local farmers. Steve Worthington, Cheney’s director of community development, adds that the city was one of the few places that had enough sewage capacity to receive all of Wilcox Farms’ milk wastes.
“The company has been realistic and straightforward in its plans,” Worthington says.
The new dairy will operate under the Wilcox Farms umbrella, a diverse agri-business company that garnered $77 million in sales in 1996. Each week, the company produces 450,000 gallons of milk and 3.5 million eggs. The business also manages 2,100 heifers and 2,300 acres of farm ground in Roy and Moses Lake.
Using the latest technology, the Cheney dairy will reflect Wilcox Farms drive for efficiency in a cutthroat industry where small profit margins have helped bring down Carnation, Foremost and other players in recent years.
Milk trucks will pull through the dairy’s tilted bays, siphoning every drop into a pair of 20,000-gallon holding tanks. The milk is homogenized, pasteurized and injected into plastic jugs in a pair of highly automated processing rooms. J.T. Wilcox plans to ship most of the jugs in 24 hours, thus reducing the need for large warehouse space.
“We’ll have break-even cash flow the day we open,” says Wilcox, wearing a green John Deere cap. “This is a very simple plant where we don’t try to do every product possible. That makes it easier to be successful.”
For Wilcox, operating a dairy is as easy as milking a cow. But leaving his country home for the first time to live in the “city” was an adjustment.
“For me, the exciting thing about the move was getting to live in a big city,” says Wilcox, who moved his wife and three children from outside Roy, population 380, to Cheney between Christmas snow storms.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
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