Horizon official expects company to survive financial hurdles

Pine Bluff’s Horizon Foods poultry processing plant at 2201 West Second Avenue is in limited operation after experiencing what Vice President Rory Botto described this week as “start-up difficulties,” but Botto anticipates the facility will be functioning at full capacity again by early April.

Botto said the plant, which processes spent egg-laying hens primarily for foreign markets, represents a “huge investment” of about $5 million. The firm’s financial partners are providing additional funds, Botto said, to “take care of all our creditors” and ease a substantial shortfall in start-up costs.

Horizon purchased the former Tyson Foods plant for $1.1 million in November 2011, according to Jefferson County real estate records.

The facility began operating in July 2012 after surpassing anticipated start-up expenses by $1.7 million, Botto said. Thieves had ransacked the building, stealing copper wiring and plumbing pipes and committing vandalism, he said.

The extra costs, coupled with a seasonal delay in delivery of hens, created some financial obstacles that prompted the shutdown.

“We’re not quitting,” Botto said. “We’re bringing in more capital and will be paying our creditors’ bills.”

Meanwhile, the company is making an effort to continue to provide income to many of its employees, Botto said.

“We’ve got 40 workers each day and call in different employees to distribute the time,” he said. “We haven’t been processing for about three weeks, but we’re poised to do some high-end production with a growing market.

“We truly appreciate our employees,” he continued. “They’ve stuck with us. We’ve had little turnover.”

Botto said some of the workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, and the company’s human resources department is making certain all employees are aware of assistance options. He said the company has not had trouble meeting its employees’ payroll obligations.

Botto said that even after the plant resumes “full capacity,” its “ups and downs” won’t be over. He said the plant will sometimes be running just four days a week at times, but five or six days a week when the hen supply “dictates.” The facility will be operating 8 to 10 hours daily.

Despite the company’s rocky initiation, Botto is convinced that Horizon has a bright future.

“It’s taken us a little longer to get going, but you have to remember that we’re not only dealing with a tough economy here, but also with economic conditions of 15 to 20 countries around the world,” he said. “Our sales are fabulous. We need to produce more. We’re committed to success. Our facility is running well. We’re planning on being here a long time.”

Horizon received a $329,000 incentive last year from the Economic Development Corporation of Jefferson County in revenue from a three-eighths cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2011 and earmarked for job creation. The monies covered the cost of refrigeration equipment for the plant, which was projected to employ 329 persons within three to five years. Starting with a work force of 175 employees, Horizon expected to create the additional jobs with a second work shift.

The company is to receive a credit of $1,000 for each job it creates, up to 329, which would cover the entire outlay from the board.

The board hired The Alliance, directed by President and Chief Executive Officer Lou Ann Nisbett, to help oversee the panel’s appropriations. Nisbett said Thursday that she and the board are aware of Horizon’s early financial woes but maintain their faith in the company’s dedication to Pine Bluff and the plant’s potential for success.