A Half-Century … And Then Some
From mopping floors for $1.50 an hour to Plant Manager, Sioux Honey’s Denny Kayl looks back on his long career at the Iowa-based co-op
Denny Kayl took a pay cut to work at the Sioux Honey Co-op. He went from a welding job that paid $2.10 an hour to mopping floors in the co-op’s warehouse for $1.50.
That was in 1968. This past summer, after 53 years at Sioux Honey, Denny retired as the co-op’s Plant Manager. Before he rode off into the sunset, we sat down for a chat in his office to talk about his journey at Sioux Honey and why he initially left a higher paying job to work here; how the honey business has evolved over the past 50 years; and what he planned to do in his retirement. You’ll read that Denny is certainly one of a kind, and he is going to be missed.
Vietnam and black lungs
Born and raised in South Dakota, Denny made his way to Sioux City, Iowa, in the mid-1960s to take a job as a welder out of high school. In 1968, Denny was called on to serve in the Vietnam War. But the draft board chose not to enlist Denny after discovering he had developed black lung disease as a result of poor ventilation at the welding company. It also didn’t help that Denny was tone deaf.
“I’m still tone deaf, but the black lung disease has gone away,” Denny says. “When the draft board rejected me, they said, ‘You better quit what you’re doing, or you’ll probably die a young man.’”
So, Denny talked to his brother, Carl, who was working at Sioux Honey at the time. Carl got Denny a job as a maintenance line worker.
“I started February the 2nd, 1968,” Denny recalled. “I started mopping the floors, cleaning things up. I did that for a couple of years. The manager at the time began showing me the ropes – showing me how the machines worked. And in 1970, I became Assistant Plant Manager. A couple years later, that manager retired, and I was promoted to Plant Manager. And the rest is history.”
A lot has changed in 53 years
The Sioux Honey Co-op has evolved considerably over the years, and Denny has been there for many of the most notable changes. Transforming the honey bottles from glass to plastic was among the most significant.
“I think it was ’82 when we went to plastic,” Denny says. “That was probably the most challenging thing we’ve had to deal with. Speed-wise, that was pretty major; you just have to handle it differently.
“It’s like, we went from something heavy to handling feathers. Plastic is lighter, a little more difficult to handle. And so it slowed things down. We went from 140 bottles a minute in the glass jars, to the max around 138 in the plastic. That all varies in the different sizes on the speed, too. So how much honey you’re putting into a plastic bottle kind of dictates the speed of it. We’re running 15 different sizes of the bottles at this point in time in the plastic.”
When Denny started, many of the operational phases were done by hand – specifically the packing process.
“When I first started, when we also handled the comb … we had a lot of honey stored in barrels, and we had to wheel honey from the basement over to an elevator, put four drums on the elevator, take them up to the first level, and that’s where we were melting the wax from the combs.
“Back then, we did most everything by hand – there was even very little use of the forklift. But now we have the help of machines, and they are a lot more involved. “
A Day in the life …
Even after 53 years, Denny says he comes into work each day not fully knowing what that day will bring.
I don’t always know what it’s going to be like, what new developments might arise, what I’m going to have to deal with, or this and that,” he says. “But we do the same thing mechanically every day and we have to deal with personalities and people; there’s a lot more people involved in it. You just deal with different situations as they come, as you’re presented them.”
Denny says he spends a lot of his days walking … and walking … and walking …
“I walk so many miles in here, I have no clue how many miles I walk on any given day. … One trip out to the line is about six blocks out and back, and I do that a lot. But lately, sometimes I’ll jump on a forklift because the concrete has taken its toll a little bit on my hips. But I can’t complain.”
A lifetime of friendships and accomplishments
By far, the most memorable part of working at Sioux Honey all these years has been the people he gets to work with, Denny says.
“I love talking to the people and listening to them, hearing what they have to say. I have a lot of respect for these people. That’s the biggest thing; you have to respect all of the people you work with – from the janitor to the top. Give them all the respect you can and have an open mind, listen to them, take suggestions and stuff like that. And when you’re trying to accomplish something, go at it with an open mind and it’ll all work out.”
Denny has worked with seven different Sioux Honey presidents during his 53-year tenure.
“They’ve all been good; I liked working with all of them because they’ve got their ideas and you get to work together to make their visions become reality.”
Pride in what they do carries a lot of weight, according to Denny.
“We take a lot of pride in what we put in that bottle,” he says. “We deal with pure honey; that is probably our one keystone. There are no sugars added to it, and we don’t even let them in the building for that reason. There are no sugars ever housed in here.”
And what will he do with his time off?
Denny says he is looking forward to relaxing. But he also has plenty of projects on his acreage to keep him busy.
“I like to work with wood, I like to make canes and I like to hunt and fish and just enjoy the seasons. It’s time to relax a little bit,” he adds.
“But yet, I’ve got projects that I want to do, and my wife has got a lot more, so we’ll get them all taken care of. We don’t travel much. We’re homebodies, I guess. But again, mostly, I’ll be able to relax a little bit.”
After 53 years, we think you’ve earned it, Denny. And you’ve also earned a very heartfelt “THANK YOU!” from all of us at Sioux Honey. We’re going to miss you around here.
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