Nestle-Gerber sparks Fremont development projects

January 25, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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FREMONT — Gerber, a famous American brand and the long-standing pillar of West Michigan agri-business, made news for the second year in a row with the completion of the new Gerber Life Insurance $8 million call center in Fremont late in 2009.

Nestlé, the giant food products multinational corporation based in Switzerland, acquired the Gerber food and insurance businesses two years ago and has made a commitment to invest $75 million in the Gerber facilities in Fremont over the next 10 years, adding at least 200 jobs to the existing 1,100 Gerber jobs there.

In 2008, the state of Michigan designated the Gerber facilities an Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone, enabling Nestlé Nutrition/North America to qualify for state and local tax abatements for up to 15 years in return for its investment in the Fremont economy.

Michigan Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zones are geographical areas designated as tax free for eligible agricultural processing companies that plan to build a new facility or significantly improve an existing facility within the zone.

Nestlé Nutrition research and development at Gerber adds to West Michigan's growing reputation as a global competitor in R&D involving food and agricultural products. Gerber produces nearly 190 different food products that are labeled in 16 languages and distributed in 80 countries, and has maintained one of the world's largest private research facilities dedicated exclusively to infant nutrition.

Ripples from Gerber activities have touched generations of West Michigan residents. The company works with over 200 Michigan fruit and vegetable growers and purchases more than 61,000 tons of produce valued at approximately $12 million. Also, Gerber used more than $36 million in packing and raw materials, supplied by 11 key Michigan-based companies.

Expanding Gerber investment in Fremont is a reflection of the partnership between Nestlé, the local community, Newaygo County and the state of Michigan. The decision last year by the state — which required the cooperation of the city and county — to establish an Agricultural Renaissance Zone in Fremont, confirms Nestlé's strategy to increase employment in the Fremont area and keep the Gerber business in its original home community.

"It certainly is a big plus for the community because of the additional jobs it represents, and the economic stability of Gerber products and Gerber Life," said Fremont Mayor Jim Rynberg.

He said Gerber, which began making baby food in Fremont in 1928 and is the largest employer in Newaygo County, "has been the anchor for this community all these years and continues to show that relationship." In addition to its direct employees in Fremont, hundreds of West Michigan farms have provided fruits and vegetables for Gerber products.

Gerber now employs 1,225 people, which includes 350 Gerber Life employees in the new 35,000-square-foot call center. Wes Protheroe is president and CEO of Gerber Life Insurance Co., and  George P. Thacker is chief marketing officer. Thacker is responsible for the company's marketing, call center and product development.

In May 2009, the A.M. Best Co. gave Gerber Life a financial strength rating of A (Excellent). It also affirmed its issuer credit rating of A. The recession took its toll, however. A.M. Best also revised its Gerber outlook to negative, based on losses in the company's investment portfolio and a modest decline in new business sales during the second half of 2008.

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