By Sue Moore
Curiosity about the 50-foot-tall pole barn in Vicksburg’s Leja Industrial Park mounted through the spring for area residents as the building grew.
Now the secret is out. It contains an industrial-strength potato peeler and other specialized food processing equipment.
According to Terry Mleczewski, managing partner of MLC Corp, the manufacturing process will take raw potatoes, de-stone and wash them and shoot them into a huge machine like a food processor.
That machine, called a PulverDryer, will extract water from the potatoes using sound energy in a controlled environment to reduce the potato to a dry powder. Potentially, the use of sonic technology reduces the amount of electricity needed and guarantees purity of the end product. The machine can process 200,000 pounds of potatoes a day, yielding one pound of powder from five pounds of raw potatoes.
The dry potato powder can then be used as a food additive in many different products, preserving the original nutrition of the raw vegetable. The initial market for the highly customized product will be the pet food industry, according to Mleczewski.
“Are you nuts?” is the first question Mleczewski said he’s been asked. “Why would a successful businessman, mechanical genius—other people’s words—at age 65 want to start all over again?” His answer? “I had a new product, owned a machine to make it, no building and I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with it. Thus the challenge.”
He described a “eureka” moment while watching TV a couple of years ago on the Discovery Channel. It demonstrated how potato flour was being made in a mill in Pennsylvania. Mleczewski knew that a machine he owned could do it cheaper and better. All he needed now, he said, was a business plan, an attorney, and someone to peddle the wares.
First came product development research. Second was renting laboratory space from Western Michigan University for testing. Third was locating a site to build, plus a lot of steps in between.
The name, MLC, came from his street in Portage: Marylynn Court where Mleczewski lives according to the attorney registering the company with the state of Michigan. The Kalamazoo attorney was an old friend, Lowell Seyburn. Seyburn had bailed Mleczewski out of jail once when he was much younger, without even knowing who he was. They have been close friends ever since.
The two sought industrial space. Vicksburg contacted them. They worked through Jill Bland at Southwest Michigan First. “We were especially appreciative of her efforts,” Mleczewski said.
The Beginning of Inspiration
Mleczewski took a roundabout path to his potato processing plant.
He grew up on a farm outside of Climax and went off to college at Michigan State University. That lasted two weeks. He quit, even though he was there on athletic and academic scholarships. His mother was devastated, he recalled. But while sitting in a class, he thought there had to be a better way to make a living. He was out the door.
He had been mechanical since a toddler, he said, building toys and ultimately little robots that could walk across the floor. He worked many different jobs in Kalamazoo and eventually bought and sold several different companies, always figuring out the mechanics to make the companies prosper. “I’m a nuts and bolts guy,” he explained.
Then came a life-changing event in the 1980s. His business partner at the time embezzled funds borrowed through the Small Business Administration (SBA). The partner skipped town, leaving Mleczewski holding the bag for the entire debt. “I paid every nickel back, but it took weeks to unravel the paperwork—when I didn’t have a job—and 19 years of working for other companies to pay it back to the SBA.”
His next move was to buy another company called Interfibe, which manufactured cellulose fiber for use as a replacement for asbestos. “We would frizz it (the fiber) up a bit and it became a binder in roof and foundation coatings.
“This led to a whole new industry in our plant in Portage on Vanderbilt Road. Then disaster struck. The plant exploded on February 8, 1994. It burned down, injuring several of the employees, even though we had just installed a spark detection system a few days before. It didn’t work and there were lawsuits galore, at one time with 17 attorneys at work on them.”
“Now, we had customers, but no product. We wanted to rebuild, but knew we would lose out to the competition in the time it would take to rebuild,” he said. Enter Joseph Rettenmaier and his son, Joe, German businessmen who had a product similar to Mleczewski’s and needed warehouse space.
They learned Mleczewski owned warehouses. They also offered to invest in Interfibe. Mleczewski was back in business within a fortnight, with the family owned company as a partner. Soon Rettenmaier needed to expand in the US and chose a site south of Schoolcraft on US 131. Mleczewski helped to plan and build the plant. He served as general manager from 1998 to 2001, while still owning Interfibe. He felt burned out, and needed to just do one job, so went back to Interfibe, having sold the business there to Rettenmaier in 2009. He had a long-term contract to stay with them and honored it, while thinking of new ways to work with cellulose.
Thus, the potato peeler. “We have built this plant for research and development with twice the capacity we need for one machine. I wouldn’t do this if I thought it was going fail,” he concludes.