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Battle Creek stakeholders get 'promising' rundown on Kellogg split

Battle Creek — Community stakeholders here expressed optimism Wednesday that Cereal City will remain a vital part of the Kellogg Co. footprint after hearing CEO Steve Cahillane detail the rationale behind the company's decision to split itself into three parts.

The company said Tuesday that it will move the corporate HQ for its largest entity, focused on snack foods, to Chicago. The other two entities focused on cereals in North America and plant-based products, led by the MorningStar Farms brand, will remain based in Battle Creek following the split, which is expected to happen before the end of next year.

The largest entity, which represents 80% of Kellogg sales from Pringles and Pop-Tarts to Eggo waffles and international cereals, will retain a campus in the city where Kellogg Co. was founded in 1906.

Stakeholders, invited to a gathering Wednesday morning with Cahillane at the Kellogg HQ in downtown Battle Creek, left the meeting with some relief after having some questions answered. 

They were assured the changes aren't supposed to result in any office moves or closures, and no employees will be asked to relocate as a result of the changes. Kellogg intends for its current real estate footprint to remain.

The CEO said "we're not moving a single job to Chicago," Battle Creek Mayor Mark Behnke said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference outside city hall. 

Ward 4 Battle Creek City Commissioner Kathy Szenda Wilson called the message from Kellogg promising: "It was helpful. It feels like the partnership and relationship with Battle Creek is strong and we are going to work on it even more.”

A Kellogg spokesperson declined to comment on the meeting.

At the press conference, City Manager Rebecca Fleury made clear Kellogg's presence in Chicago is not news to Battle Creek officials. 

In October 2017, Kellogg purchased Chicago Bar Company LLC, maker of RXBAR, after earlier that year purchasing office space in downtown, the Chicago Tribune reported. The following year, Cahillane purchased a $5.62 million  mansion in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, according to Crain's Chicago Business

"We're excited about North America cereal and plant being headquartered in Battle Creek. And we're excited that, per the company, there'll be no jobs lost," Fleury said.  "We've learned that people can work anywhere, but Battle Creek is passionate about having as many employees remain in Battle Creek as possible."

Fleury added she was assured the Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research (WKKI) would remain in Battle Creek and that it is important for Kellogg's R&D work. But there are still some questions, including what the three new companies will be named. 

The city of Battle Creek's cereal roots run deep. There are reminders of the Kellogg legacy here throughout the downtown and beyond. The historic city hall building has rugs praising Battle Creek as the “breakfast capital of the world."

There’s a Cereal History Exhibit downtown.

And there was just a Cereal Fest event featuring the “World’s Longest Breakfast Table." The first Cereal Festival happened in 1956 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kellogg Co. At that event, The "World's Longest Breakfast Table" drew a crowd of 15,000, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer

Kellogg is one of the city's largest employers with about 2,000 people, according to Battle Creek Unlimited, an economic development organization. Battle Creek has strived to diversify with the use of its Fort Custer Industrial Park, which has more than 80 companies on site, including auto supplier Denso Corp., a larger employer with 2,500 on its roster. 

"Battle Creek is synonymous with Kellogg, but you have to realize there's much more going on here besides Kellogg," Battle Creek Unlimited CEO Joe Sobieralski said, noting downtown is seeing nearly $100 million in renovation work with several projects that include adding new housing and a hotel.

The upgrades are supported to attract people to the area to help fill any talent gaps as companies across the country continue to struggle finding the right employees.

"We may be talking about Battle Creek today. This is a Midwestern thing, this is a Michigan thing. We need to continue investing in place-based economic development for all of our communities, because talent is the number one driver on what companies are going to make decisions (off)," Sobieralski said.

Bruce Holcomb, 60, is a lifelong Battle Creeker and public school teacher. His mother and grandmother both worked for the company, and he recalls Kellogg offering plant tours where he would get a box of cereal and a Kellogg’s hat. But at some point, Kellogg’s presence seemed to drift into the background for Holcomb and others.

“Ever since Kellogg’s has been pulling out, we’re used to this stuff going on,” he said before heading to the Cereal History Exhibit. “We don’t really worry about Kellogg’s anymore. They’re doing their own thing.”

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Comstock Township, attended the Wednesday headquarters meeting and stressed that though the company says its footprint  in Battle Creek will not change, he wants to see more community involvement on the company’s end.

“My position is how do we build trust, so the people understand that Kellogg is still committed to Battle Creek,” Hall said. “I think Kellogg needs to do more; today was a good start, but Kellogg needs to do more to demonstrate its commitment to this community.”

At the same time, Battle Creek leaders are working on making the city a place people want to live and work. Lack of an international airport is one issue Kellogg noted that the area cannot change, Hall said, but there are other areas that can be addressed.

“Battle Creek also needs to compete,” Hall said. “We can’t do anything about the fact that we don’t have an international airport here, but we can continue to do things to make this downtown attractive, to improve the housing in this community, to do more to attract the talented workforce that wants to be here."

Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.