(left to right) IDFA CEO Tip Tipton, NCI Laureate recipients Rudy Nef and Max Gonzenbach, and NCI Chairman Lou Gentine, shown at this year's Dairy Forum.
The National Cheese Institute (NCI) bestowed its highest honor, the NCI Laureate Award, on two cheese industry leaders at the 2003 Dairy Forum. NCI Chairman Lou Gentine, chairman and CEO of Sargento Foods, Plymouth, Wis., presented the awards to Max Gonzenbach and Rudy Nef of Valley Queen Cheese Co., Milbank, S.D.

The distinguished NCI Laureate Award recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the development and growth of the industry. A panel of industry professionals chooses the winners each year based on long-term contributions to the industry. Mark Davis, pres., Davisco Foods International Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., nominated Gonzenbach and Nef for this year’s award.

Gonzenbach and Nef recently retired from the daily management of Valley Queen, but continue to serve as officers on its board of directors. Valley Queen was founded in 1929 by their fathers, Alfred Gonzenbach and Alfred Nef, both Swiss immigrants. The company is now managed by the third generation of the Gonzenbach and Nef families.

“These two sons of Swiss immigrants have truly lived the American dream,” noted Gentine. “They’ve successfully woven together the threads of family, commerce and community, with amazing results.”

At Valley Queen, Nef and Gonzenbach carried on the family tradition, and eventually succeeded their fathers as the company managers. During their careers, they grew Valley Queen from processing 25 million lbs of milk to 550 million lbs per year. They transformed it into a modern plant that processes whey and applied new business ideas that were advanced for the time. For example, in 1964, they installed large open cheese vats and drain tables to handle 30,000 lbs of milk with a single agitator.