U.S. Dairy Giant Gets a Female CEO Who Touts Artisan Cheeses

(Bloomberg) -- For Beth Ford, who was named chief executive officer of Land O’Lakes Thursday and will become the agricultural cooperative’s first female leader, the future of dairy lies in premium products like ash-dusted goat cheese.

As American milk producers struggle with a global supply glut, Ford says she’ll grow the country’s biggest dairy cooperative by focusing on developing high-value products. She pointed to Land O’Lakes unit Vermont Creamery as a model of the way forward. The specialty producer makes the aforementioned cheese, creme fraiche and other items that can command premiums.

Food producers around the world are racing to adapt as consumer tastes rapidly shift and demand surges for products that are considered artisan, unique and trendy. Social media has also had a deep influence on the way people eat as everything from avocado toast to zucchini noodles gets a hashtag.

“In this environment, where insights and data are so important, and innovation is so important, we are well-positioned,” Ford said by telephone Thursday, adding that the cooperative will push to partner with retailers and other companies to help create new products.

“If you’re willing to partner and say, ‘We can make this special thing for you that supports your business,’ they’re excited,” she said. That type of “innovation muscle” is what’s garnering success in the market today, she said.

As CEO, Ford plans to “deepen and accelerate” investments in innovation across the company’s many businesses. While Land O’Lakes is known for dairy, its subsidiaries span the so-called farm-to-fork spectrum. It owns Purina, for example, an animal nutrition company, and WinField United, which sells seeds and crop chemicals.

Milk Glut

But dairy still reigns supreme for the cooperative, and a move to more premiums products could help Land O’Lakes members to shore up their profits. Specialization can help to offset the losses from low commodity prices as global milk production surges -- a trend that Ford doesn’t see relief from anytime soon.

“Our members, they’ve seen these cycles in their lives on the farm and they really do batten down the hatches, and try to strengthen their balance sheets in good times and hold on in challenging times,” she said.

Ford will take the reins on Aug. 1 as the current CEO Chris Policinski retires, the company said in a statement Thursday. While she’s one of a handful of female chief executives among Fortune 500 companies, she joins the ranks of women at the helm of other large dairy processors globally. Siobhan Talbot heads Glanbia plc, an Irish dairy processor and food ingredient maker, as group managing director. Annikka Hurme serves as CEO of dairy processor Valio Oy in Finland.

Ford has held leadership positions in seven companies across six industries, including Mobil Corp. and PepsiCo Inc. She had served as chief operating officer of Land O’Lakes Businesses since December 2017, which had sales of $14 billion in 2017. She was hired by the company in 2011, and served in various executive vice president roles.

‘Strong Background’

Ford’s appointment won’t come as a surprise for those following the roster of executives at Land O’Lakes, said Michael Boland, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota.

“She has a strong background and has been active in the last year at public meetings of the cooperative,” he said in an email on Thursday.

Ford is a Sioux City, Iowa, native, the fifth of eight children. Her father was a truck driver and her mother a nurse, psychologist and minister.

While not a factor in her appointment, Ford is not a typical Fortune 500 CEO. She’s only one of 24 women to hold the title. She’s also married to a woman, Jill Schurtz, with whom she has three teenage children.

She said she recognizes that her ascent could have an impact on minorities who don’t see people like themselves in powerful positions. While she said she has worked in inclusive environments, there are others who have to hide who they are.

“Some people don’t feel comfortable being around their authentic selves at work,” she said, making it difficult for them to perform at their highest level. “It’s an important moment, and I’m excited that we get to share this information.”

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