New ownership builds on Klement’s history

Made in Milwaukee

Employees hang sausages on a rack before sending them into the company’s smokehouse.

Klement’s Sausage Co. Inc.
207 E. Lincoln Ave.  |  2650 S. Chase Ave.
Industry: Sausage
Employees: 400

For nearly 60 years, Milwaukee-based Klement’s Sausage Co. Inc. was a family-owned company, until it was sold to Altamont Capital Partners in 2014.

The past two years have brought a number of changes as Tall Tree Foods Holding Co., a portfolio of protein-based companies within Altamont, has sought to take the Klement’s brand national.

Sausage links are tied after being stuffed with meat at Klement’s Chase Avenue plant.
Sausage links are tied after being stuffed with meat at Klement’s Chase Avenue plant.

The company relocated its headquarters to the Pabst Brewery development downtown. It has invested in new equipment and is in the process of expanding its workforce while moving away from temporary employees.

“It was a positive thing,” said Joseph Guzewski, manager of Klement’s Chase Avenue plant, of the Altamont purchase. “The family got to the point where I don’t think they could grow (the company) any more without help. (Tall Tree Foods has) taken Klement’s to the next level and still maintains the quality level.”

Klement’s produces a variety of products. Its Lincoln Avenue facility, which used to include its headquarters, produces cooked, smoked and deli products, including sausages headed to Miller Park. The Chase Avenue facility produces ready-to-eat items, like snack sticks and summer sausage, and fresh products.

Tall Tree Foods has also brought 5 million to 7 million pounds of production to Klement’s facilities from elsewhere in the portfolio, helping to utilize capacity and balance out seasonal variations.

To support the national expansion, Klement’s has added new equipment and technology to its production. Ray Deeter, vice president of operations and supply chain, said the company was running three production lines for eight hours a day to produce snack sticks.

By switching to new equipment, the company is able to have one line running for six hours a day.

Not only does the new equipment improve productivity, Deeter said, but it also leads to more consistent and better products.

“When you’re national, it’s important from a brand perspective,” he said of consistency.

Another effort to improve the consistency of Klement’s products as it expands is a shift from temporary to full-time workers, which Deeter described as a philosophical change. The company also is in the midst of an effort to hire 30 to 50 people over 60 to 90 days.

“We have to really go an extra mile in terms of trying to make this a good, fun, exciting place to work because it’s 40 degrees out there (in the plant). It’s not like you’re working in this nice, cushy, air conditioned office space or this nice warm warehouse somewhere,” Deeter said. “It’s hard work and it’s tough conditions sometimes.”

Employees hang sausages on a rack before sending them into the company’s smokehouse.
Employees hang sausages on a rack before sending them into the company’s smokehouse.

To help with retention, Deeter said Klement’s has begun handing out awards for employees exemplifying the company’s core values, holding cookouts during lunch periods and other weekly events.

Coming out of a family business environment, Deeter said Klement’s found a need to empower people in leadership positions to make decisions instead of turning to the family to make a choice. He said Klement’s has invested a lot in leadership training over the past year to do just that.

“I think it’s had a huge impact,” he said, citing improved problem solving skills and increased comfort in making decisions.

Another change has been an increased emphasis on safety. Deeter said Klement’s already had a good program in place when he arrived, but he’s taken it farther, starting every meeting by talking about safety.

Food safety is particularly critical as the company expands nationally. One incident could potentially wipe out the work done to expand the brand’s reach. That means having the Safe Quality Food level 3 certification, the highest possible. It also means a nightly washing of the facility, handwashing stations in every room and different frocks for different areas of the building.

Even though Klement’s small batch production helps bring an artisanal quality to its products, Deeter said there is a lot more science involved than the public might think. It requires maintaining just the right blending of meats and spices to have a consistent product and reaching precise temperatures for safety.

“It’s an interesting business. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been here 41 years,” Guzewski said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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