It takes a minute to get used to the fish smell in the East Berlin factory. But it's bearable, and the busy, smiling employees buzzing around the plant don't seem to mind.
In Zeigler Bros. Inc.'s main plant section, employees change metal plates on machines that make fish food pellets, massive silos of feed perched 50 feet overhead. In the warehouse, workers load bags of feed onto shipping containers heading to Asia, Africa, South America and everywhere in between for companies, private buyers and zoos.
On the other side of the factory, smaller machines make specialty feeds for shrimp farms and animals at research facilities as well as bulk fish-food flakes.
Zeigler Bros. makes and sells more than 300 types of animal feeds in nearly 50 countries and has captured a large segment of the market for a company with just 62 full-time and 11 part-time employees.
"I don't know that we've ever been scared," said Matt Zeigler, vice president of operations. "There's a lot of opportunity out there."
Matt's father, Thomas Zeigler, had pioneered the company's involvement in aquaculture feeds — think Pennsylvania's trout hatcheries — in the 1970s as farming fish the same as livestock or chickens emerged. Aquaculture soon became an important world food source and a key segment of the company's feed business.
It's also making millions in revenue at large growth rates, although executives declined to release the latest figures. In 2008, total revenue was more than $14 million, according to Business Journal records.
But times weren't always good, and Zeigler Bros. is a company that literally faced trial by fire to get where it is today.
In 2007, the company's facility in Gardners, Adams County, was destroyed by fire, leaving Zeigler Bros. with half the capacity to produce feeds at a time when its international sales were growing.
Prospects looked dim, said Tim Zeigler, vice president of sales and marketing. The company had ambitious sales goals, and it didn't look possible to meet those expectations in the recession with just one factory. The company's 2008 sales grew by just 1.2 percent.
It consolidated all production to East Berlin, and the company's employees banded together to make it work. It diversified its markets and products even more, as well as collaborated with research universities and government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.
After the fire, Zeigler Bros. needed more bulk manufacturing capacity. So it expanded its licensed factories closer to end markets to make volumes of its fish foods, Matt Zeigler said. This franchise system started in 1985 with a factory licensed in Panama. Today, the company licenses 43 such facilities worldwide.
"Out of everything bad comes something good," he said.
The company slowly got back on its feet, the brothers said. It wouldn't exist today without its tough employees who shrugged off the fire and remained loyal and dedicated to the company's future success.
"We've been able to exceed (those 2007 sales goals) by 20 percent with just one plant," Tim Zeigler said.
Zeigler Bros. is moving forward with focus on the fast-growing aquaculture market that's providing more protein sources to countries where people struggle to produce enough food.
The company sees itself at the beginning of an industry that could be as big as poultry in coming years.
"Farming is farming," said Larry Strickhouser, Zeigler Bros.' technology services manager. "Doesn't matter if its livestock or fish. Aquaculture is agriculture."
Aquaculture is nothing new, but its growth has quickened with technological advances in recent years, said Steven Hart, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Soy Aquaculture Alliance.
The trade group represents companies making aquaculture products from soy meal, which is the largest feed source at 10 million metric tons annually, he said. Fish meal, made from fish, sells just 4 million tons.
The industry has been growing at more than 7 percent a year for two decades, Hart said.
"Aquaculture is really poised to explode over the next several years," he said.
Intensive aquaculture, which is raising seafood in tanks, often in inland places such as Iowa, is relatively new, but it is expanding aquaculture's prospects around the world, Hart said.
International growth of aquaculture is driven by Asia, which is more than 80 percent of the world market, he said. China makes up 60 percent.
"My hope is that we'll see the industry start to grow here as well," Hart said.
Companies such as Zeigler Bros. and Minneapolis-based food, agriculture and industrial products giant Cargill Inc. will be instrumental in that expansion, particularly because they're developing the support networks for the industry, he said.
"The U.S. has been a technology incubator for aquaculture," Hart said.
For Zeigler Bros., innovation, adaptation and collaboration have become a hallmark of what keeps them going in the world animal feed markets, Tim Zeigler said. Its employees don't shy away from change. They get out there, try new things and go to new places.
"We're a small company," he said, "and we believe in the value of selling more American products to the world."
Zeigler Bros.' feed exporting has attracted attention and accolades this year.
Exporter of the Year, U.S. Small Business Administration: SBA gives this to just one company in the nation. Zeigler was named the top company in the Eastern Pennsylvania District and Mid-Atlantic Region in the run-up to the national award.
President's Exporting Award, U.S. Commercial Service: This award, also known as the President's E Award goes to just 50 companies that have expanded America's exports.
Governor's Impact Award, Pa. DCED: Gov. Tom Corbett presented this award to Zeigler in Hershey for its role as an exporter. It was one of five awards in the South Central Region and 50 in the entire state.