Home Back Issues January 2010 Tillamook CEO reveals strategy for future

Tillamook CEO reveals strategy for future

| Print |  Email
Articles - January 2010
Thursday, December 17, 2009
tillamookceo
HAROLD STRUNK
TILLAMOOK COUNTY CREAMERY ASSOCIATION CEO
Tillamookcheese.com
FAVORITE TILLAMOOK CHEESE: Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar
FOUNDED: 1909
ANNUAL POUNDS OF CHEESE PRODUCED: 125 million
2009 NET SALES: $435 million (85% from cheese sales)
EMPLOYEES: 630
MEMBER FARMS: 107
PHOTO BY DWIGHT CASWELL

It says something about a place when almost 1 million people a year make a pilgrimage to a cheese factory. Yes, the Tillamook County Creamery Association produces more than that, but this house was built on the rock of cheddar 100 years ago and it’s not moving.

A wise CEO does not mess with this kind of thing lightly.

So it would seem that Harold Strunk is well suited for the job: low-key, Midwestern unflashy, with a famous cow in his past. He has spent more than 20 years in marketing and sales in the dairy products industry, including 12 years at Borden in Columbus, Ohio, home of the Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk and the iconic Elsie the Borden cow. Borden no longer exists and Elsie’s likeness is now licensed to various companies such as Smuckers. “There was no discipline or planning,” says Strunk in explaining the demise of the company, which was at one time the largest producer of dairy products in the U.S. It’s a mistake he will not make at Tillamook. “We are very focused on cheddar cheese.”

Since he arrived two years ago, Strunk has been upgrading business systems and infrastructure so TCCA can compete on the customer service front and be positioned for controlled growth. That growth will stay focused on the core dairy products. “There is not a lot of product innovation at Tillamook,” he says. “It’s a risky proposition.” In 2000, TCAA built a new 85,000-square-foot cheese-making plant in Boardman, and then expanded it again in 2006 to 150,000 square feet, which increased TCCA’s total output by 50%.

“I think it can be a billion-dollar company,” says Strunk. “It’s that strong a brand. It’s one of the truly differentiated products I’ve worked on in my career … This reminds me a lot of Coors beer in the 1970s. There’s a buzz about it back East. There’s a mystique, and zealots.

“One of the biggest things I learned at Borden was the emotional connection to Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk. It’s the same thing people in the Northwest have — an emotional connection to this cheese. We ran out of sharp earlier this year and there was such an outcry.”

TCCA is a farmer-owned cooperative that is publicly traded and privately held, and also a packaged-goods company. It’s a unique challenge when the suppliers are the owners.

“One different side of [this job] is how to keep the farmers healthy. We try to pay the most for milk, not the least.” TCCA used to lock in the milk price it paid to the co-op farmers for a whole year. Strunk changed that to quarterly, then to monthly pricing.

production
loafy2
busgrass
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TILLAMOOK

“How do you grow a co-op based product? There is tension all the time,” Strunk says. “The farmers are interested in their milk supply. What does their milk check look like? I’m trying to get them to understand that they are investors in a company that should grow.” There is also tension around whether to build equity or get a payout.

“The dynamic with the farmers has been really different for me. The idea of keeping your farmers whole has been very difficult. Every farm situation is different. You don’t know what the break-even point is for them.”

Tillamook cheese is a product that takes time to make and age, and pricing needs to be premium, but not too high, says Strunk. Finding that sweet spot on pricing to help manage the margins is where Strunk feels he brings expertise. Still, farmers call him all the time and want to know why he doesn’t charge more for the cheese.

Part of Strunk’s strategy is to keep the emotional connection strong. But being beloved in the Northwest doesn’t mean you can rest on your curds.

The company has invested heavily in social media, notably piling up more than 25,000 fans on its Facebook page. It also will launch this month the Loaf Love tour (“Put a little loaf in your heart”) and a new spokecheese: Loafy, a two-pound Tillamook cheddar loaf. The two-pounder, incredibly, does not exist on the East Coast. “We need people to taste us,” Strunk says. “Then they’ll fall in love.” The tour starts in Tucson and will travel around the country with VW buses reshaped as cheese loafs in tow. It will give Tillamook a chance to tell its story.

“If you don’t go directly to the consumers,” says Strunk, “you put your brand in the hands of the retailers.” He wouldn’t say what markets he might be targeting, but believes “There is cheddar potential everywhere.”

The next question is inevitable. In a Loafy vs. Elsie smackdown, who wins? Strunk quickly considers and decides it would be cow over cheese now, but one day, “I would like Loafy to be as big as Elsie.”

ROBIN DOUSSARD
 

Comments   

 
Julie
0 #1 Oregonian now in Michigan..Julie 2011-12-01 09:30:27
Bring all the product to Michigan!!!!!!
Quote | Report to administrator
 
 
maggie
0 #2 maggie 2012-01-06 16:50:27
Harold: Leave Oregon alone. If you don't like living here get a new job. Big is not always better. Like Harry and David's you will ruin your product.
Quote | Report to administrator
 
 
Lisa
0 #3 What Article Were You Reading?Lisa 2012-01-10 11:58:05
The message by "Maggie" is baffling. I read the article three times and could not see any indication that Harold doesn't like living in Oregon. If her comment is that Tillamook should stagnate like so many Oregon businesses, then people like her are the reason we constantly have higher unemployment than much of the country. We should be proud to have an Oregon based, historical company with a strong Oregon identification that is GROWING and not laying people off. Good grief where does this attitude come from?

Harry and David's problems were not because of growth but taking on too much debt, poor forecasting for demand and having a luxury product that faced a downturn in the economy. I remember when it was just Bear Creek Orchard and can't say that the pears aren't as good as they used to be
Quote | Report to administrator
 
 
LYNN
0 #4 I heard that Tillamook Creamer been sold to Great lakes cheeseLYNN 2012-02-23 15:14:23
I heard that Tillamook Creamer been sold to Great lake cheese. But I can't find it any where. Can some one find out the truth?
Quote | Report to administrator
 
 
Guest
+1 #5 I Want To InvestGuest 2013-01-12 19:39:12
I like Tillamook products and believe there will be growth in sales to people who want to buy good quality food. So I want to know where can I invest in Tillamook? Is there any plans to do an IPO?
Quote | Report to administrator
 

More Articles

Closing the gap: Community colleges and workforce training

News
Thursday, March 27, 2014
03.27.14 thumb collegeBY MARY SPILDE | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Community college career, technical and workforce programs present an opportunity to bring business and education together as never before.


Read more...

Workplace benefits

March 2014
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Health care and vacations rule. That’s the consensus from our reader poll on workplace benefits that help retain and recruit employees.


Read more...

Video: Kickstarting Oregon business

News
Thursday, March 27, 2014
02.04.14 Thumbnail VideoBY JESSICA RIDGWAY | OB WEB EDITOR

Watch this OB Original Video about three Oregon companies and how crowd-funding "kickstarted" their business ideas.


Read more...

Small business sales go big

March 2014
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

BY BRANDON SAWYER

Sales of small businesses surged in 2013 according to the biggest Internet marketplace of such transactions, BizBuySell, increasing to 7,056 reported sales, a 24% increase over 2012, when they dropped 7%. Portland Metro sales tracked by the site grew 9% to 73, capping three years of solid growth. On top of that, Portland’s median sale price jumped 67% to $250K, versus just 13% to $180K nationally. Portland was one of just six metros tracked where the median sale price matched the median asking price, with sellers getting, on average, 92% of what they asked.

BTNMarch14 tableBTNMarch14 line


BTNMarch14 piePDXBTNMarch14 pieUSA


Read more...

How to help your staff solve their own problems

Contributed Blogs
Friday, March 21, 2014
03.21.14 thumb coxcoffeeTOM COX | OB BLOGGER

During a recent talk to HR Directors, I asked if they saw leaders trying to solve every problem, instead of delegating to and empowering staff. Every head nodded. Every single one.


Read more...

100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon [VIDEO]

News
Monday, March 03, 2014

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 11.26.47 AM

Check out interviews with employees from some of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon winners and find out what makes their company a great place to work.


Read more...

Downtime with Ron Green

March 2014
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
BY JESSICA RIDGWAY

Ron Green became president and CEO of Oregon Pacific Bank in August 2013.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS