Perspectives From The Top
by Pamela Accetta Smith
Some of the industry’s leading ladies speak out on their successes and challenges in the ever-evolving dairy processing sector.
There is a noticeable trend in today’s work force — more women are earning executive positions in many businesses. It hasn’t been an easy climb, and in many professions, women are still under-represented at the top. But in the dairy industry — one long dominated by men — women continue to make amazing strides with key leadership roles.
Dairy Field sought the input of women reaching new heights in the industry, from processors to suppliers to industry associations. The following leaders shared their views with us:
Connie Tipton, president and chief executive officer, International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), Washington, D.C.
Miriam Erickson Brown, president and chief operating officer, Anderson Erickson Dairy Co., Des Moines, Iowa.  
Rita Duncan, MS, RD, LD, executive director, St. Louis District Dairy Council., St. Louis.
Sharon Lobel, president and chief executive officer, Seal-It Inc., Farmingdale, N.Y.  
Martha Leyburn, director of quality assurance and manufacturing technology, Friendly Ice Cream Corp., Wilbraham, Mass.  
Margaret “Peggy” Poole, Ph.D., vice president of quality and regulatory affairs, HP Hood LLC, Chelsea, Mass.  
Q: What is your specific role in the industry?
Connie Tipton: I am fortunate to lead the preeminent organization representing dairy foods companies. IDFA is essentially the staff for the industry in Wash-ington, D.C., working on regulations and legislation, industry communications, marketing programs and other activities needed by industry companies. Even though I’ve been with the industry associations for nearly 25 years, there were big shoes to fill, as they say, when my husband, Tip, left as CEO after nearly 40 years of service to the industry. It’s an honor that industry executives on our boards asked me to lead the organization.
Miriam Erickson Brown: I am president and COO of an independent family-owned and managed dairy. I have had the opportunity to serve in a variety of leadership positions in the industry. I am serving a second term as chair of the Milk Industry Foundation; I chaired IDFA for one year ending last October, and am now IDFA secretary/treasurer. I also served on the MilkPEP board in various capacities for 11 years.
Rita Duncan: Our mission is to communicate the role and necessity of dairy foods in a healthful diet.  Because few people eat foods that they don’t enjoy, it is critical that dairy taste great in addition to having nine essential nutrients.  
Sharon Lobel: Seal-It is a leading manufacturer, converter and printer of heat shrink PVC, PETG and OPS films that are used for shrink labels and tamper-evident bands. Shrink labels have become very popular and many dairies are using Seal-It’s shrink labels for their products. In addition, we also work with food, health and beauty and industrial manufacturers on their labeling and tamper-evident needs. 
Martha Leyburn: My team develops programs, materials and training to improve food safety and quality monitoring of ice cream. On the technology side, we explore, develop and implement equipment to improve the manufacturing process through automation. 
Peggy Poole: Current responsibilities include overseeing the quality systems across HP Hood LLC. This includes the 24 manufacturing facilities with capabilities to produce conventional dairy products, cultured dairy products, extended shelf-life and aseptic dairy products. I interact with R&D to assure compliance with state and federal standards. I maintain and assure compliance with specifications, nutrition labeling, ingredient declarations, claims and certifications (kosher, organic, etc). I also oversee the company’s food safety initiatives.
Q: What motivated you to get involved with the dairy business? What was your first job in the industry?
Tipton: I had worked in public relations and fundraising for organizations in Washington, D.C., but was interested in getting involved in something with more political interest and substance. The dairy industry association obviously filled the bill. I started working as part of a 16-person staff for the milk and ice cream associations in May 1981, doing largely administrative work, but quickly got involved in sugar policy issues and much, much more. It’s a great industry to work for and there’s never a lack of issues or things to do.
Brown: As a third-generation family owner of Anderson Erickson Dairy, I pretty much have dairy on the brain. When I began in marketing at AE Dairy, our company wanted to bring our consumer marketing to the next level, while nationally, dairy was commonly treated as a commodity. This was a real opportunity for all kinds of creative thinking, targeted consumer marketing strategies and product innovation to support the AE brand. My first job was answering the phone taking product orders — I was 15 years old. 
Duncan: My background and education is in culinary, nutrition and agriculture, which are all important in working for dairy farmers to promote their products. As a health care professional (registered dietitian), I often used Dairy Council materials when I made community presentations. I valued their unbiased credibility. I believed that they were based on scientific research unlike materials from some other groups that offered similar materials. When I was asked to interview for the position of executive director of St. Louis District Dairy Council, I jumped on it. I thought, what a great job! I get to promote a healthy, wholesome and nutritious food that tastes great. What more could you ask for?  
Lobel: Seal-It’s business is to manufacture, convert and print on heat-shrinkable film. When the dairies turned to single-serve bottles, shrink labels became the label of choice for these bottles. Right from the beginning, we were called on by a large dairy to print shrink labels. Seal-It’s quality and fast turnaround gave us an advantage. We also have extensive print capabilities. We can print to 10 colors in rotogravure or modified flexographic, and we also offer digital flexo. We have a clear understanding of how dairies work, and we have developed programs and methods in order to help dairies manage their inventory. We communicate with our customers frequently and they feel comfortable calling with questions. All of these facts contribute to our success with dairies.  
Leyburn: I grew up milking cows and working on my parents’ dairy farm. With this, going into the dairy industry seemed to be a natural progression.  My first job was in a large vertically integrated dairy company as a research technician, developing packaged ice cream flavors and ice cream novelties.
Poole: I’ve always had personal interests in science, health and nutrition. This led me to study food science. After completing my Ph.D. in food science-biochemistry from Rutgers University, I was offered a position with Häagen-Dazs as a scientist. I held several positions with increasing responsibilities at Häagen-Dazs, including project manager for R&D, manager of product development/quality improvement and manager of worldwide technical/regulatory affairs. What’s not to love about that? Developing fabulous ice cream products in a fun, cross functional team-oriented, fast-paced entrepreneurial environment — it was a great introduction into the dairy business.
Q: In an industry long dominated by men, to what extent do you see women making strides in leadership roles across the industry? Why do you think that is?
Tipton: More women are getting solid educations and more women are pursuing careers, so that contributes to advancements in many fields. Certainly more women are in leadership roles here in Washington, D.C., than ever before. We have a few women on our boards, a change from none not too many years ago. On the other hand, Betsy Holden chaired the organization and went on to lead Kraft, so there are certainly possibilities.
Brown: For our industry to be successfully targeting women as consumers, we need to have their leadership, in addition to the leadership of men who are sharp enough to see a need for balance.
Duncan: In many ways, the dairy industry is no different than many others in its male dominance. Like other industries, women are making strides to gain leadership roles.  
Lobel: I really don’t feel it matters whether it is a man or woman in a leadership role. Our customers are interested in price, quality and service. We go out of our way to make our customers happy. At Seal-It, we strive to give our customers what they need so that their products become best sellers. I do feel that women are making strides in the industry, but it is important that they are not judged as a man or woman but rather what they can contribute.
Leyburn: Traditional roles for women in the dairy industry have been in QA, R&D and purchasing. Now I am starting to see women in engineering roles and a few in operational roles. I think more opportunities exist because of the number of young women going to school and graduating as process, industrial and mechanical engineers. 
Poole: Some more progressive companies recognize the benefit of hiring diverse individuals (gender, race, work experience, etc).  The diversity of the team strengthens the organization and better positions the company to respond to changing consumer and customer needs. I do, however, believe that many corporations have an enhanced understanding of gender and equity issues in relation to leadership within the organization. I come across a good number of female senior executives in my field of work and I do believe that progress has been made toward securing equal rights for women in the workplace. I think this is probably attributed to the fact that women make up nearly half of the work force. 
Q: As a woman, what do you think you lend to the industry that perhaps is missed by your male counterparts?
Tipton: I’ve always thought it important to be measured by accomplishments, not by being a woman. But I think I have a good balance of skills, including my “mom” skills, that are helpful in managing a staff and in leading an industry organization.
Brown: I love it that women are the primary food purchasers and nutritionists of the household. As a representation of the target market, I can help fine-tune marketing messages and set future strategies based on my understanding of the category and my own experiences.
Duncan: To paraphrase from a book I just read, “Women Don’t Ask — Negotiation and the Gender Divide,” women approach negotiation from a collaborative point of view. They want to make sure they know what everyone wants and they try to make that happen. Men, on the other hand, are less willing to disclose information and are more interested in winning than compromise.
Lobel: I believe that there are many qualified men and women in the industry. Seal-It prides itself on service. Our customers are the most important part of our business. We make it as easy as possible for them. If necessary, we hold their hand and walk them through the process of developing their shrink label.  We try very hard to manufacture a quality product in the least amount of time and to make sure they are happy. Our No. 1 goal is to make our customer happy.
Leyburn: Successful women have the ability to multitask, delegate and prioritize. It is a natural talent for women to be juggling multiple complex projects all day at work and then organizing their spouses and children’s lives in their home at the same time, and doing it well.
Poole: I believe that men and women are equally capable and have similar skill sets. I believe that the differences really lie at the individual level (having differences in perspectives, experiences, educational backgrounds, etc). For instance, as an individual, I bring to the industry a mix of work experiences and life experiences. I have worked in R&D and QA for both large corporations and small entrepreneurial companies. I have a very supportive family (husband and two children) and have lived in several states in the U.S. I have over 20 years of successful dairy product development experiences.
Q: Do you see more women in dairy in the future?
Tipton: I’m sure the numbers of women working in our industry in leadership roles will continue to increase. There are a lot of talented men and women who contribute to the industry’s growth, innovation and success.
Brown: Absolutely! I think as a result of MilkPEP, processors are beginning to see the need for marketing support for their products, creating new positions and growth. Dairy has a squeaky-clean foundation that most other industries would kill to have. The opportunity to be involved with a family-oriented, high-usage retail category like dairy is exciting for males and females. 
Duncan: I think that as more women join the executive ranks they will be valued for their ability to resolve difficult situations with win-win outcomes.  
Lobel: I see more women entering the packaging industry both in dairy and other fields. My feeling is that what’s important to our customer is providing them with a good product at a competitive price. I hope to see highly qualified people of both genders enter the dairy business.
Leyburn: Yes, as manufacturers become more lean structurally, women will be given the opportunity to take on more responsibilities and will therefore cross into areas that are typically male-dominated roles.
Poole: YES — and I welcome it!