Commitment to employees and long-held family values is central to the 50-year success of Sargento Foods

Not only is Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., one of the largest privately held cheese companies in America, it is a third-generation, family-owned business, which is committed to producing and marketing high-quality, convenient cheese. It is this devotion to cheese, along with strong loyalties to employees, that company founder Leonard Gentine banked his family's future on when in 1949 he opened the Plymouth Cheese Counter, a small gift shop in the carriage house adjacent to his funeral home business. Some might have thought it was doomed to die, but just the contrary occurred. The business boomed, and in 1953, Gentine teamed up with his neighbor Joseph Sartori, an Italian cheesemaker, to meet the growing demand for old-world, quality cheeses. They founded the Sargento Cheese Co., and quickly became famous for selling some of the best mozzarella, Parmesan, Provolone and Romano in America.

"My father always said that in order to be successful, you have to surround yourself with good people and treat them like family, and we've lived up to that philosophy," says Larry Gentine, president of the food service division and second son of Leonard. "Our employees are an extension of our family and they share our passion for cheese and our love for succeeding as an industry leader. We consider our employees to be our greatest assets and offer them as many opportunities as possible to grow and prosper."

In the United States, there are about 18 million family-owned businesses, and less than one-third survive to the second generation. Out of those, only 50% extend family ownership to a third generation. Sargento has numerous second- and third-generation family members involved in the company.

Because family businesses typically prescribe and adhere to a long-term plan with steady leadership, they tend to be more committed to consumers over the long haul, according to Dean Fowler, a certified management consultant and family business advisor.

"Both in times of economic success and decline, family-owned businesses survive," says Fowler. "This is important to employees because you can attract and keep good people who remain committed and loyal. They know they will be treated with integrity."

Innovators in many ways

"Since my father started the company, we've focused on giving consumers what they want-the best tasting cheese for making meals and snacks their families will enjoy," says CEO Lou Gentine, third son of Leonard. "Per capita cheese consumption has practically quadrupled in the past 50 years, and we believe the company has had a lot to do with that."

Indeed, in 1958, Sargento became the first company to package shredded natural cheese, providing value and offering busy families a form of convenience. Sargento was also the first to introduce natural sliced cheeses and to market blends of shredded cheese, as well as crumbled blue cheese.

"Remember, in 1953, the pizza market was nothing like it is today," he says. "Our foodservice shreds helped many pizzerias enter this burgeoning market. On the retail side, our shreds encouraged moms to make their own pizza or to quickly assemble a lasagna." In 1965, the Gentine family purchased Sartori's stock in the company, making Sargento a wholly owned family company.

Four years later, Sargento changed forever the way packaged cheese is sold at retail. The company introduced dairy case peg bar merchandising, which displays packaged cheese at eye level, within easy reach of the consumer. In 1986, Sargento introduced the first zippered, resealable package for shredded cheese and in 2000, took it a step further with the launch of the award-winning Slide-RiteR Advanced Closure System with a protective top-seal on its shredded and cubed cheese packaging. Today, consumers expect their shredded cheese packages to offer a resealable feature thanks to Sargento.

So what can the industry expect Sargento to get involved with in the near future?

"There's definitely a great deal of interest in the Hispanic cheese category, as well as organic. And as the population ages, there is also a need for stronger flavored cheeses," he says. "Fortunately for the cheese industry, there are strong health and nutrition messages surrounding cheese, and these will prove to be very beneficial."

Sargento contracts cheesemakers to produce all of its natural cheeses and has them follow strict cheesemaking practices in order to meet set specifications. The company further processes natural cheese into a range of processed cheese products including cheese sauces and snack foods, as well as industrial ingredients.

Sargento Foods - A Glimpse Back in Time

Leonard Gentine opens the Plymouth Cheese Counter.

Sargento Cheese Co., is founded by Gentine and neighbor Joseph Sartori.

Leonard invents vacuum packaging of cheese to preserve freshness.

Sargento becomes first to market shredded cheese.

The Gentine family acquires Sartori's stock, making Sargento a wholly owned family company.

Sargento introduces peg bar merchandising to the U.S. dairy case.

Louis Gentine, third son of Leonard, becomes CEO.

Sargento introduces Zip-Pak resealable packaging.

The Moo Town Snackers refrigerated line is introduced.

Sargento Cheese Co., becomes Sargento Foods Inc., with a Consumer Products Div., and Food Service Div.

Founder Leonard Gentine dies.

Sargento introduces the Food Ingredients Div.

Sargento unveils the Slide-Rite Advanced Closure System with protective top-seal on shredded and cubed cheese packages.

Sargento celebrates its 50th "Golden" Anniversary.