Few companies reach the milestone of 100 years in business, with First District Association joining this select group earlier this year. The cooperative, which manufactures dairy products from high-quality milk supplied by family farms, has undergone major transformations over its century-long history. A number of major planned investments have been made over the past decade to capitalize on the opportunity for growth.
Despite only being in the role for just over two years, President and CEO Bob Huffman has already made an impact as the company enters its next chapter. “When I came on board, I signed some of the last papers for financing the investment, and then within three months, we broke ground on brand-new facilities on one campus that create more than a 30 per cent growth of our manufacturing footprint,” he shares.
Bob brings a wealth of experience to First District Association as it reaches a transition point. For the dairy cooperative to successfully expand its footprint in a relatively short period of time, he is aware of the importance of embedding operational excellence.
“I definitely have a strong and continuous improvement background and mindset, but the way I measure the performance and what winning looks like is based on data and measurements across the board,” he explains. “Not just from a manufacturing standpoint, but also from an efficiency perspective in every stream or path in which we conduct business every day.”
“The number one factor with a supplier or vendor is the relationship, and the level of trust and confidence – that’s a two-way street.”
However, rather than micromanaging staff and placing a systematic set of criteria for what ‘excellence’ is, Bob focuses on building a strong employee base that is prepared for any challenges that may arise.
“I don’t have set criteria, I don’t have systematic ways of communicating,” he reflects. “It’s more about making sure that I’ve got the right team in place and my team has the right tools and what they need. And they have it in a way that they enjoy what they’re doing, and have passion and love for their job, so that when they come to work, they’re not dreading it.
“That’s been a key focus of mine – they have the talent, they have the skill set and, in many ways, they’re much smarter than I am, so it definitely has been a big part of my success.”
Thanks to the solid employee base and crisis management program First District Association had in place before the pandemic, the manufacturer was as prepared as possible for the unique issues raised by COVID-19. At no point during the pandemic did any manufacturing facilities close down, with a “fearless” attitude held by all staff, according to Bob.
“I was extremely humbled day after day, month after month, by how well we were able to navigate and work through the crisis,” he recalls. “We’ve managed our way through it. The level of trust that we had from our full team, whether it was our team members out on the manufacturing floor or out in the field, or working with our customers, was pretty humbling and amazing.”
Establishing a culture of pride and ownership are some of the reasons why First District Association has been able to not just survive over the past 18 months, but also thrive. “Being able to be empowered and having that ownership, in my belief, is the key ingredient to being the employer of choice,” Bob asserts. “It’s not always about money, it’s not always about benefits – it’s about really being proud to be a part of it.”
Transactional relationships with suppliers that almost solely focus on price may be effective in some industries but for First District Association, the focal point of relationships with suppliers is based around key values and sustainability.
“The partnership with a supplier doesn’t start with price, it starts with our goals, sustainability, and quality and food safety,” Bob insists. “It’s about the confidence of a long-term partnership and not a short-term conversation. At the end of the day, the number one factor with a supplier or vendor is the relationship, and the level of trust and confidence – that’s a two-way street.”
“We’re owned by close to 700 family farms and we don’t have turnover in our membership – they’re long-term memberships built on trust.”
In the past, the cooperative managed supply chains by area and function; however, it developed this process by building a supply chain department with strong leadership that provides a consistent way to manage these vital relationships while also addressing the needs of customers. “We have realigned our full supply chain and put a centralized focus on working with our partners as we look towards future growth,” he says.
By building strong operations with a focus on employee, food and safety standards, innovation and sustainability, the cooperative is able to benefit from a strong supply chain, Bob points out. “The logistics of getting ingredients to the plant and then the final product to the customer requires key, long-term relationships,” he explains.
The reputation First District Association has built over its 100-year history for premium-quality products, backed by the farms that own and supply the company, often for multiple generations, is the base that the future of the business will be built on. “We’re owned by close to 700 family farms and we don’t have turnover in our membership – they’re long-term memberships built on trust,” Bob says.
As an example, First District Association recently built a large state-of-the-art facility in the Upper Midwest, which from a technology viewpoint is industry-leading and something Bob is very proud of.
“We partnered up with many different organizations and people to build this space. The innovation and the manufacturing of the equipment that’s going to be making our product are worth highlighting,” he smiles. “We wouldn’t be where we are without those relationships.”
“When you focus on servant leadership, the key pieces of extremely tight food safety and empowerment of ownership of the people in your team, as well as the reduction of waste and inefficiency, all come together,” he says.