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Golden Guernsey closing leaves workers, stores, schools scrambling

Waukesha plant locks doors over weekend

The front gate remains locked at Golden Guernsey Dairy processing plant in Waukesha on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013. The plant closed suddenly on Saturday and is not expected to reopen.

The front gate remains locked at Golden Guernsey Dairy processing plant in Waukesha on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013. The plant closed suddenly on Saturday and is not expected to reopen. Photo By Scott Ash

Jan. 8, 2013

Dave Dvorak was in the middle of his shift delivering milk when he was told to return to the dairy.

He couldn't even finish his stops.

Dvorak, a 25-year distributor for the Golden Guernsey plant in Waukesha, was hearing for the first time that the 83-year-old facility was closing.

"I was working Saturday and got a call from my boss to bring back the truck as the plant was locked down," said Dvorak, of Stone Bank.

The closing has left more than 100 workers without a job and left school districts scrambling to try to find a replacement supplier for milk. The closing happened over the weekend, and workers have been left wondering what happened.

On Monday, outside the plant at 2101 Delafield St., there were a few cars lingering around the parking lot with only a security guard on hand.

"All the employees have been left to dry," Dvorak said. "Nobody knows anything. They didn't tell us. It's ridiculous."

But under state law, employers are required to give 60 days' notice of any shutdown to city and state officials, and to pay their workers severance payments for 60 days leading up to a shutdown or mass layoff.

Responding to closure

In response to the closing, Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson announced Monday initial steps the DWD and its regional workforce partner, Waukesha-Ozaukee-Washington Workforce Development Inc., are taking to assist affected workers.

"Clearly, the closure of the plant was unexpected for the employees and the Waukesha community, and the abrupt nature of the act is particularly troubling," Newson said in a news release. "We want the workers to know that we are here to support them and are working as quickly as we can to initiate services that will assist them and their families during this uncertain and difficult time."

The DWD and WOW have scheduled Rapid Response orientation sessions for workers in the WOW region on Jan. 16 and 17 at the WOW Workforce Development Inc., offices at the Workforce Development Center, 892 Main St., Suite A, Pewaukee.

Affected workers are asked to pre-register by calling (262) 695-8041. Additional details about each session, including available time slots, will be provided individually.

The Rapid Response services are part of the DWD-administered Dislocated Worker Program, which serves workers who become dislocated when a business cuts positions or ceases operations entirely.

The goal is to help them find work at new jobs that pay as well or better than their previous employment.

"We are saddened to hear about this, and we are here to reasonably assist them in staying open in any way that we can," said City of Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima.

While Dvorak, who is employed through C. Delsman and Sons Inc. in Waukesha, will no longer distribute for Golden Guernsey, his company will now distribute for Prairie Farms Dairy, out of Dubuque, Iowa.

And unlike when he was distributing for Golden Guernsey, which delivered to a number of grocery stores across a four-state regional area covering Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa, Dvorak said he will now just distribute to local Aldi stores.

"It's going to be a change," Dvorak said.

Searching for options

It will also mean a change for Fox Brothers Piggly Wiggly in Hartland, which sells Golden Guernsey milk.

"We were very surprised and shocked when I got the call on Saturday morning," said owner Pat Fox. "Our distributors came to get milk, but the doors were locked.

"They've been part of Waukesha County forever. There's great concerns for the farmers that sell Golden Guernsey products and with distributors; it was shocking to hear they were closing. We've heard absolutely nothing."

Fox said his Piggly Wiggly's (he owns six stores in the area) had enough milk over the weekend because his distributor picked milk up on Friday.

"We were fortunate because of that," Fox said.

And he said, luckily, he found a replacement with Dean Foods out of Sheboygan.

"We needed to find a way to keep serving the customer and taking care of our guests because milk sells at such a high volume," Fox said.

Fox added that the closing leaves some uncertainty, as he has sold Golden Guernsey milk at his stores since he opened in the 1980s.

"For me, it goes back to 1985," Fox said. "It will be very different not having Golden Guernsey. The plant is Waukesha County, and now it's not there anymore."

Schools affected

With the plant closing, local school districts were left trying to find alternate sources for milk.

Mapleton Dairy Haulers of Oconomowoc delivered Golden Guernsey milk to more than 300 school districts in 40 districts across the state.

Waukesha schools were unaffected, however; Superintendent Todd Gray explained that his district receives Kemps milk from Sodexo Inc. in Milwaukee.

For Dvorak, though, it remains "a bittersweet day," as his family had strong ties to Golden Guernsey.

Clark Vilter, who owned a dairy farm in the Town of Merton for decades with his family and distributed milk to Golden Guernsey, had the same feeling.

Vilter's father, William, was elected to the Golden Guernsey Board in the mid 1950s and served for more than 20 years.

"It used to be almost like a family," Vilter said.

While Vilter has scaled his farm back and stopped distributing milk to Golden Guernsey in 2011, he still said "it was pretty sad" when he heard the plant was closing.

Recent new ownership

He recalled how Golden Guernsey started as a farmer-owned cooperative in Milwaukee in 1930 and how Golden Guernsey moved to Waukesha in 1955 as it continued to grow.

Vilter indicated that the plant had recently been under new ownership, as Open Gate Capital, a Los Angeles private equity firm, bought Golden Guernsey after its former owner, Dean Foods, was required to sell the plant to settle antitrust concerns in 2011. Ownership has not provided workers with any information on the closing.

Vilter wasn't sure what went wrong, but made an observation.

"I don't know if they had any experience in the dairy industry," Vilter said. "I doubt that they did. It's just a lot different now."

Greg Serres of the Merton Feed Co. said Golden Guernsey used to be a staple around here.

"Years ago, every farm had a Golden Guernsey sign, because that's who they produced for," Serres said.

Golden Guernsey Timeline

Golden Guernsey Dairy started as a farmer-owned cooperative in Milwaukee in 1930.

By 1935, Golden Guernsey had grown from a single route servicing 85 customers to 20,000 customers on home delivery routes in the signature dairy trucks.

Paper replaced glass packaging in the 1940s.

Golden Guernsey relocated to Waukesha as construction began on a new plant in 1955.

As home delivery declined in the late 1960s, Golden Guernsey Dairy began distributing in grocery stores and supermarkets.

In the 1970s, a plastic blow mold machine was installed.

Grip It-Sip It single serve was developed in the 1990s.

Dean Foods acquired the De Pere and Waukesha plants from Foremost Farms USA of Baraboo in 2009 for $35 million.

Open Gate Capital, a Los Angeles private equity firm, bought Golden Guernsey after its former owner, Dean Foods, was required to sell the plant to settle antitrust concerns.

The plant was unexpectedly shut down Saturday by the firm that's owned it since September 2011.

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