Third generation workers lead Western Sugar Factory

There’s new leadership at the Western Sugar Co. factory in Lovell, but that team comes with deep roots.

Rob Johnson, left, and Shannon Ellis form a third-generation leadership team at Western Sugar in Lovell. David Peck photo
Rob Johnson, left, and Shannon Ellis form a third-generation leadership team at Western Sugar in Lovell.
David Peck photo

Shannon Ellis was named the factory manager recently, and at his side is maintenance manager Rob Johnson. Both are third-generation employees of the sugar factory.

“I guess it’s in the blood,” Johnson said.

Ellis started working at the factory in 1986 at age 18, working evenings while attending school at Northwest Community College during the day, hoping for a career in wildlife management.

“They kept giving me a paycheck, so I kept coming back here,” he said with a smile.

It was only natural for the young man. His grandfather, George Ellis, worked at the factory in the 60s, 70s and 80s, rising to become a shift mechanic. Father Larry Ellis started in the late 60s and retired as maintenance manager in 2009, Shannon said, succeeded by Rob Johnson.

Johnson’s grandfather, Gerald Johnson, was a machinist at the Mitchell, Neb., plant, and the family moved to Lovell in 1967. Father Bob Johnson rose to become a shift master mechanic before retiring as maintenance supervisor in the early 1990s. Mom Sharon Johnson was the factory manager’s clerk from about 1981 to 2003, Rob said.

Shannon Ellis was raised on the family farm west of Cowley, where Larry Ellis raised cattle and grew hay and grain. He graduated from Rocky Mountain High School in 1986 and started work at the factory.

“My first job was throwing 100-pound bags of sugar,” he said. “I worked during the summer, then worked campaign during the winter while attending school. I went full time in 1990.”

Ellis’s jobs included extra gang worker, mechanic’s helper, pellet loader, dryer operator, sugar baler and sugar end foreman. He rose to become a shift supervisor for eight years, then production manager for two years, also working one campaign at the Torrington factory as acting factory manager. He took over as factory manager in Lovell this summer, replacing Ray Bode, who was doing double duty in recent years between the Lovell and Billings factories after initially taking over at the Lovell factory in 2003. As production manager, he worked closely with Bode to learn the management ropes.

“Most of the process issues were kind of second nature to me,” Ellis said. “If there were employee or union issues, I would have Ray help me with it. I work with all of it now: environmental quality, personnel and production.”

Ellis said he works closely with Johnson, and between the two of them they’re looking to modernize production. The most recent addition is a new building with two new presses in it for the use of precipitated calcium carbonate to get more sugar out of the juice and leave a drier waste product that can be used for agricultural purposes.

Ellis would also like to put in a new tower diffuser to increase the slice rate at the factory. He said the factory can currently slice nearly 3,000 tons per day but with some modernizing could increase production to 4,000 tons per day, meaning that beets wouldn’t have to sit in piles as long.

“That’s on our wish list,” he said. “Our current diffuser is very old and very tired.”

Ellis said it has been a pleasure working with Johnson over the years, calling the current management process “a good team effort,” and adding, “The way we’re set up right now … I like it.”

Johnson grew up in Lovell and Cowley, graduating from RMHS in 1985. He started with Western Sugar in 1987-88 and became full time in 1991 after attending the University of Wyoming and Northwest College. Like Ellis he held various positions over the years until becoming maintenance manager upon the retirement of Larry Ellis five years ago.

Johnson worked his way up, starting as a day cleaner and moving on to the sugar crew throwing bags, boiler house operator, pellet loader, mechanic’s helper and top mechanic for several years before taking over as maintenance manager.

Both Ellis and Johnson said they greatly appreciate the many experienced hands that work for the company, some of whom will retire in the near future and take a lot of institutional memory and experience with them, notably supervisors Dale Fowler and Jim Dickerson, plus some foremen and electricians.

“We have a really good bunch of people here right now,” Ellis said. “When some of them retire it will be really sad to see them walk out the door. I want to stress how much I appreciate the guys who work here and have put so many years in. We have a great bunch of people.”

Johnson agreed, noting that what separates the Lovell factory from others is the people, noting, “I’ve never see a group pull together like they have. It’s great to see.”

Ellis said the Lovell factory, though the smallest in the company, is “at the top of the heap in efficiency,” adding, “We get the most sugar out of the beet.

“It has a lot to do with the guys out there and the job they do. The beets are also the best in the country. We have quality beets.”

“And our storage conditions are the best,” Johnson added.

Ellis said the current campaign is going well, though the crew is probably 10 to 12 workers short, noting, “We’re looking for people every day.”

By David Peck