Before She Was C.E.O., She Cleaned Toilets. ‘How Wonderful Is That?’

Here is another superb article from for The New York Times in which he shares his conversation with Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’ Lakes. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.

* * *

Beth Ford has spent much of her career working on supply chain issues, which has served her well as the leader of Land O’ Lakes.

When Land O’ Lakes redesigned its packaging last year to remove a decades-old illustration of a Native America woman, it seemed like just another dust-up in the culture wars. Liberal activists and politicians praised the company for abandoning stereotypical imagery. The conservative National Review ran a story titled “Land O’Lakes Cancels Its Century-Old Native American ‘Butter Maiden.’” Some customers boycotted the company for its “virtue signaling.”

But according to the Land O’ Lakes chief executive, Beth Ford, the decision had nothing to do with any of that. Rather, the decision to replace the “butter maiden” with images of fields, lakes and farmers was an attempt to play up the company’s distinguishing feature: that Land O’ Lakes is a cooperative, owned not by public market shareholders but by the farmers who make its butter, animal feed and more.

It’s a rare model in today’s economy, but it is working for the company and its members. Last year, sales were nearly $14 billion and net earnings about $266 million, most of which flowed back to real farmers on real farms.

Ms. Ford, who grew up in the Midwest, worked at a variety of companies, often looking after supply chains, before joining Land O’ Lakes. That experience paid off when the pandemic hit, and Land O’ Lakes, like most companies around the globe, was forced to reset. After the initial disruptions — not enough milk for supermarket shoppers, too much for commercial customers that abruptly shut down — the company stabilized, and went on to have one of its best years.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

What was it like for you growing up in Iowa?

I’m the fifth of a family of eight children. My dad was a truck driver growing up, and my mom was a nurse, and then she went back and got her master’s and became a psychologist. We were Catholic, and we went to Catholic school, Catholic high school, and we were a working-class family. You had to work for what you got. If you wanted to go to college, you have to figure out a way to pay your way.

My first job was detasseling corn. I didn’t come from a farm, but I came from farm country. And then in college, I had to work my way through college, so I had a number of jobs, including as a janitor. I cleaned toilets. I painted houses. I was a cashier at a convenience store. When you’re in that, you don’t think, “Oh, this is great.” But now I reflect back on that and say: “What a blessing. How wonderful is that?”

You spent much of your career working on supply chain issues. Between the pandemic and the Suez Canal, it seems like the whole world has been thinking about the supply chain more than ever before. What has the last year taught us?

There was a time where you were like: “Oh, we can get some leverage. There’s labor cost differential and lower cost dynamics if we globalize.” But that can be disrupted. It’s very difficult right now to get products in from Asia, and to export. We’ve got a shortage of containers, and then there are philosophical, political and strategic issues in different countries. So I think that there’s going to be more reshoring.

The “just in time” supply chain means you have this tight value chain that makes sense when everything makes sense. And then when there’s a disruption, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to address that.

How did the early days of the pandemic play out for the company?

Initially our members — the farmers — were uncertain. Food service is shutting down, so you had 30 or 40 percent of milk supply — where does it go now? On the one hand, folks at retail were trying to buy two gallons of milk, and there were restrictions. On the other hand, they were dumping at the farm level, because that milk supply and the manufacturing processing capacity are meant for food service.

There was quite a bit of money that was put into the farm economy over the last two to three years because of trade disruption and then Covid disruption, so I think the farmers overall had an OK outcome. But it was very, very disruptive.

How does running a co-op, rather than a traditional public company, change the way you make decisions about strategy, resource allocation, and optimizing short-term and long-term goals?

The incentives can be different. We can definitively hold profit or hold benefit at the farm level to try to offset at the corporate level, so that we are trying to make sure that the farmer — the member, the shareholder — remains robust in this dynamic. And I may make decisions that definitively try to advantage the farmer, over taking that profit at the corporate level or the enterprise level and cooperative.

There’s an intimacy to this model. I know the families. I’m out on their farms. I’m with them constantly. I see the pressure. I see their stress at the same time. I see their communities that are challenged.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.






Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.