| By Billy Davis
"God is blessing this project, and we know we’re going to succeed," Rolando Foods chairman and CEO Roland Butler told The Panolian this week.
Any future success of Rolando Foods is slow going, however, since the Maryland-based food company has yet to begin operating at its new home, a plant site in Crenshaw.
According to Butler, the delivery of food production equipment is the cause of the months-long delay.
Despite the delays, Butler said he believes the production equipment will be delivered by February 15, a "target date" the CEO said was agreed to by himself and supervisors.
Employment interviews will begin on site in "a week or so," Butler said, then training for new hirings will begin.
Rolando manufactures food products such as juices, baby formula and milk. Butler appeared with some of his products in late July when he told Panola County supervisors that the company would go "full blast" toward an October opening date.
The Panola County Board of Supervisors voted in July to give Rolando the former Dana plant, which was then county-owned property, to lure Rolando to Panola County.
Dana was Crenshaw’s only industrial employer. After it closed, District 2 Supervisor Robert Avant, who represents Crenshaw, convinced his colleagues to gamble with the property turnover in order to bring a new industry to the town.
Butler has said in past months that the food plant would employ as many as 300 people when its production peaked in two to three years. At his appearance in July, the CEO said the company would begin hiring truck drivers and plant workers by October.
To date, however, Butler is employing only a skeleton crew at the facility that is charged with renovating the plant. The hirings include Avant’s son, Robert Avant Jr.
Butler said he hired a contractor, Cecil Coward, to oversee renovation of the facility. The cost of renovation has reached $200,000 so far, he said.
Butler said he is not personally involved in a subdivision development on Fire Tower Road, which is headed by Coward, called Crenshaw Heights.
Butler conceded Thursday in a phone interview that the Crenshaw plant is behind its scheduled opening date. He placed blame on the delay of equipment from the manufacturer.
The July closing on the property transfer, which Butler needed for bank collateral, delayed placing an order for the new equipment, the CEO said.
Still other problems hampering equipment delivery included an ice storm and the holiday season, he said.
"We anticipated closing two to three months earlier, so all of these other orders came ahead of us," Butler said. "We’ve got a schedule, but the manufacturer has got a schedule."
Asked why Rolando expected an October opening date with machinery that had to be built and delivered, Butler’s explanation was that the company had a small "window of opportunity" to purchase the equipment.
"If we had closed the deal out earlier in the summer than we thought, say April or May, it made a difference in placing your order," Butler said.
Asked what company is manufacturing the equipment, Butler said naming the company is against protocol due to standard trade secrets.
"If you call Maxwell House or Folgers, they don’t give you that information," the CEO said.
County officials who were reached this week by The Panolian repeatedly referred to assurances made by Butler about bringing the food company to Crenshaw, but said they knew few details beyond that.
"All I know is that their finances are complete and we’re waiting to hear from (Butler) about when the equipment will be here," said County Administrator David Chandler.
According to Avant, who conceded that his son is working at the plant, he believes Rolando will begin operations when the equipment arrives.
"It took a long time to get the stainless steel equipment made. That’s what they told me," said Avant.
Reached by this newspaper, Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons said he was told this week by Butler that the equipment will be shipped to Crenshaw "in the next week or so."
Simmons also said Butler has assured him that contracts with clients are in hand despite the delays.
"He assures me that they have adequate orders in hand and contracts are actually signed," Simmons said. "I have not seen them personally, but he assures me they have adequate contracts signed for the product they’ll be manufacturing."
"We have some contracts, but I’ve already talked to them and told them the problems we have," said Butler. "They understand that because people know, when you bring a new line on, there’s going to be delays."
Both Avant and Chandler said that the agreement between the county and Butler stipulates that the Dana property reverts back to the county if the food company fails to begin production at the Crenshaw site.
"That’s my understanding," agreed Simmons.
Both Avant and Chandler also stated that Butler asked for and received a 90-day deadline extension from supervisors, either during a November or December board meeting.
A search of the board minutes did not show any action in November of December regarding Rolando, however.