Flour mill rises to the challenge
Knappen Milling recently became the first women-owned and -led business of its kind in North America.
Twenty days before Black Tuesday and the start of the Great Depression, a farmer named Charles “Charlie” Brown Knappen incorporated a flour mill business in Augusta that his great-granddaughter now runs today.
Emily Knappen Likens, president and CEO of Knappen Milling Company, said her great-grandfather Charlie Knappen in 1929 owned a 300-acre farm and a grain and feed store in Richland, as well as a collection of grain elevators in the region.
He was friends with Eck Udell, a buyer for Kellogg, and Dr. W.E. Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, and he liked to stay abreast of business opportunities in the region and consult his friends for advice.
Udell told Charlie Knappen about Kellogg’s ingredient needs at the time. Upjohn — who, in partnership with a co-op of local farmers, owned a decommissioned flour mill in Augusta — encouraged Charlie Knappen to buy the mill and give it new life.
To raise the capital, Charlie Knappen convinced several friends to buy stock in the venture, and Upjohn bought the Knappen farm in Richland while letting Charlie Knappen continue to live there and manage the land.
Knappen Milling Company was born on Oct. 9, 1929, at 110 S. Water St. in Augusta, conveniently located along the Michigan Central Rail Line, en route to Battle Creek.
The company started with one product — heavy wheat bran, or the hard, outer layer of the wheat kernel — and one customer, Kellogg, which used the bran in its Raisin Bran cereal.
In 1962, Charles “Chuck” Brown Knappen Jr. took over the business upon his father Charlie Knappen’s death. By 1979, Charles “Chip” Brown Knappen III became president.
Over the years, Knappen Milling entered and exited various sideline businesses, including selling wholesale feed, molasses, farm fencing, tanks and electronics.
It also diversified into other areas of the food industry beyond cereals, such as pancake and waffle mixes and batters for fish and onion rings — products which later were discontinued.
During Chip Knappen’s tenure in the ’70s and ’80s, he began to move the business toward new capabilities, including adding electronic color eye sorters adapted from the rice industry to produce “state-of-the-art cleaned” (SOTAC) wheat, a clean grain customers could use in their production.
Around 2001, Kellogg began phasing out the use of heavy bran in its cereals, so Chip Knappen initiated a three-year “reflowing” of the facility to focus on soft wheat flour products and SOTAC wheat and less on bran.
Among its products today are a number of soft red and white wheat flours, flaked wheat, cut wheat, graham flours and still some brans.
Powered by its 43 employees, Knappen Milling’s total capacity is about 500,000 pounds of flour per day. Its on-site storage capacity is 1.8 million bushels of wheat.
Chip Knappen’s daughter, Likens, and her husband Bob Likens moved back to Michigan from Colorado in 2012 with the goal of becoming the next generation to lead the company. She took a seat on the board of directors in 2014 and became Knappen Milling’s first female president and CEO in 2018.
Along with a minor ownership stake held by her dad, Knappen Milling is majority owned by Likens, her sister, her two female cousins and her aunt.
In April of this year, Knappen Milling became certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council as a Women-owned Business Enterprise (WBE) and Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB).
Likens gives much of the credit for her unusual but successful leadership transition to her aunt, Sarah Knappen, who backed her for the role of president and CEO.
“I was a practicing midwife, and I stepped out of my profession and moved into running a manufacturing business,” Likens said, noting that while she grew up around the mill, she had never worked there.
“I’m very close with my aunt — she is also on the board and has been on the board for many years — and she was able to help give me a lot of background information. She was really excited to see this change, and my dad was excited to see this change.
“Sometimes, (a transition) can be really tense and difficult, especially in a family situation. That was not the case for me. My dad allowed me to step into the role, and he gave guidance and he allowed me to shine. And my aunt is providing that support, so I’m not fighting against anyone internally. My husband works here at Knappen as well (as senior vice president), and he and I work really well together, so he is giving me support. (My family) allowed me to catapult off them and just carry a lot of momentum forward.”
Likens said every generation of a family-owned business creates its own culture, and she is excited to start forming her own with plans on the horizon for an internal restructuring as well as adding new products and increasing the mill’s conservation and corporate responsibility practices.
While the company plans to continue its 90-year legacy as a supplier to Kellogg and other cereal, snack and candy manufacturers, Likens said she plans to follow new opportunities in the marketplace as they arise.
One recent example of Knappen Milling’s evolution as a supplier is its new venture selling cake flour to a local artisan distillery called Kalamazoo Stillhouse for use in its gin making.
Some of Knappen’s other products go into making malt for local brewers, Likens said, and micro-stills throughout the country have used its products for making whiskey.
According to Likens, her grandfather’s motto was “Give me an opportunity, and I will make it work” — a philosophy she believes sums up the family legacy.
“I am proud of our tenacity and ability to move and change with the industry,” she said. “Here we are today; we’re being given opportunities, and we’re making them happen.”