Breaking News Bar

Gilster-Mary Lee honored as Manufacturer of Year

  • Don Welge, 1935-2020

    Don Welge, 1935-2020

  • Tom Welge, president of Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. in Chester

    Tom Welge, president of Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. in Chester
    Du Quoin Call file photo

Herald Tribune staff report
updated: 12/15/2021 8:45 AM

Hundreds of business leaders from across Illinois gathered Friday for the Illinois Manufacturers Association's annual luncheon to honor their industry and to celebrate the Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. as the winner of the 2021 Barry L. MacLean Manufacturer of the Year award.

The IMA's annual luncheon celebrates the state's manufacturing sector, which drives Illinois' economy by producing lifesaving vaccines and treatments, developing high-tech vehicles, keeping store shelves filled with food and creating indispensable goods that power homes and businesses.

Receiving special honor this year is Gilster-Mary Lee, the private label food manufacturer headquartered in Chester and a major employer in southern Illinois and elsewhere.

The IMA says that during the worst of the pandemic Gilster-Mary Lee not only ensured Americans had reliable access to food, but also promoted the importance of COVID-19 vaccination to employees and surrounding communities.

Gilster also regularly partners with Autism Workforce, which works with companies to successfully hire, train and retain autistic employees.

"Gilster-Mary Lee embodies the best of the best in American manufacturing with its focus on workforce opportunities and community safety," said Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

"I'm so proud to recognize Gilster-Mary Lee as the 2021 Barry L. MacLean Manufacturer of the Year in Illinois," he added. "(Their) innovation, integrity, and investment in Illinois' communities is making our state, nation and the world a better place every single day."

In 2020, as the pandemic was taking hold, Gilster-Mary Lee's patriarch, Don Welge, became the first COVID-19 casualty in Randolph County. An outbreak of COVID at Gilster followed, and the company worked closely with the Randolph County Health Department -- even temporarily closing some manufacturing plants for deep cleaning.

Gilster's partnership with local hospitals to embrace COVID testing for every employee every day -- at every Gilster plant in the county -- is credited with helping authorities get a handle on the outbreak locally, and being a model for other companies.

With a history spanning more than 126 years, Gilster-Mary Lee has grown to employ more than 3,000 people at 13 facilities in three states.

It makes private label brands for stores across the country, making more than 8,000 items from cereal and cake mix, to pasta and popcorn. Gilster-Mary Lee products will be featured in many holiday meals, including stuffing, instant potatoes, gravy mixes and pie shells.

The annual Barry L. Maclean Award is given to a company for its leadership in six core areas: manufacturing advocacy; operational excellence; innovation and technology; workforce development and diversity; community engagement and sustainability.

"We are honored to accept this award, which is an acknowledgment of the dedication and hard work demonstrated by our employees every day to ensure we deliver quality, service and value to our customers around the world," said Tom Welge, president of Gilster-Mary Lee.

"We value our partnership with the IMA and offer our thanks for this recognition as well their continued efforts to advocate, promote and strengthen the manufacturing industry in Illinois.

"The pandemic has proved to be one of the most challenging periods in our company's history, but by working together manufacturers are investing in our communities and leading our state and nation forward."

The IMA luncheon featured keynote remarks delivered by Paul Zikopoulos, vice president of Technology Group Skills Vitality & Enablement at IBM. Zikopoulos is an expert on future trends, helping companies leverage problems into opportunities, changing the way audiences look at their businesses in terms of potential sales, obstacles, potential for growth and how they utilize technology, such as cloud applications, to support their organizations.

According to the association, the Illinois manufacturing industry generates $304.8 billion in economic output each year. Statewide, manufacturers directly employ 592,200 women and men with an average salary of $88,691, providing a total of $52 billion in wages and benefits across Illinois.