All In The Family
by James Dudlicek
Devotion to kin and employees provides bedrock for Gossner Foods’ success in the cheese industry.
Interested in buying Gossner Foods? Save yourself the trouble.    “We have opportunities constantly to sell the company, and I don’t even return the phone calls,” says Dolores Gossner Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Logan, Utah-based manufacturer of cheese, aseptic milk and whey products. “The family doesn’t have any desire to sell, because we’ve seen what happens when some of these companies sell out — it is not the same.”
The company — started four decades ago by Wheeler’s parents, already in the autumn of their years at the time — sees family as the root of its strength, not only blood relations, but the dedicated employees who have entrusted their futures to it.
“Our supervisors all started from the ground floor, so they have a great knowledge of what they’re doing,” Wheeler says. “I think we are unique in the great people we have who work for us. The amount of pride they take in their work is remarkable to me.”
That pride is warranted, what with a growing list of branded, private label and foodservice customers here and abroad, generating $150 million in sales last year, placing Gossner Foods at No. 62 in Dairy Field’s Top 100 ranking of dairy processors in 2005. To meet the growing demand for its products, Gossner opened a new cheese factory in southern Idaho last fall, barely a year after breaking ground. The Magic Valley plant joins the flagship plant in Logan and a facility in El Centro, Calif., that opened in 1999.
“We do move very quickly when opportunities come up,” Wheeler says. “If someone comes to us with an idea, it’s very seldom we’ve totally walked away from it without investigating to see if it’s something viable that we can do. And we do move very quickly — that’s one thing the big customers have appreciated.”
Service and Quality
About 80 percent of Gossner’s output is for customers’ labels; the rest is sold under the company’s own brand in Utah, California and the Pacific Northwest. Much of that reaches the throngs of people who flock to the retail store at Gossner’s Logan headquarters, some traveling hundreds of miles to get their fill of Swiss cheese and shelf-stable flavored milk, along with fresh cheddar curds and ice cream that are only available at the plant. (A similar store is planned at the new Idaho plant.)
Total products made encompass a couple of thousand SKUs, which also include aseptically packaged broth products that were a good fit for Gossner’s low-acid processing lines. Newest products include mini horns, reclosable packaging for the fresh curds and a variety of sliced cheeses, a convenience product that Wheeler says is a key growth area for cheese. Gossner is also making a new line of flavored milk and a reduced-fat Swiss cheese, both for major national brands.
“It’s been our philosophy to move quickly if an opportunity’s there, and to try to do things for the larger companies that have the sales force to sell a product we want to produce,” Wheeler says. “We have tried to specialize in doing products for someone else.”
But whether under its own brand or others, Gossner’s cheese has found its place. “It’s been exciting to see how people are accepting natural sliced cheese and the growth that’s taking place,” Wheeler says. “We’ve always specialized in a very mild Swiss cheese —we call it the Western flavor. Maybe someone who’s a real Swiss connoisseur will say it doesn’t have enough flavor, but the majority of people like the milder Swiss cheese, and it doesn’t overwhelm the flavors of a sandwich.”
Such growth made the Idaho plant a necessity. “We had customers who wanted more product than we were able to produce,” Wheeler says, noting the new plant will allow Gossner to double its Swiss cheese output. “With the aseptic products, I see a natural steady growth as more people look at the convenience of it and understand what it’s all about. It just continues to grow.”
Gossner got into the fluid milk business in 1982 “because we felt the need to pay a Grade A price to our farmers,” Wheeler says. But the company didn’t want to compete against existing fluid processors in sparsely populated Utah. Wheeler’s father, company founder Edwin Gossner, came across aseptic milk in Canada and decided to have a go at selling it, since it’s easily transported to faraway markets that present increased sales opportunities. Today, Gossner milk — the oldest UHT fluid brand in the United States — can be found around the country as well as the Far East.
“When Hurricane Katrina hit, we sent several truckloads of milk down to Texas and New Orleans,” Wheeler says. “Since them, we are getting significantly more hits on our Web site and as many as 30 phone calls a day from people wanting to know where they can find our milk.”
Wheeler sees growth opportunities for aseptic milk due to the product’s ability to be transported and stored for months without refrigeration. And she hopes the convenience factor and an extensive selection of flavors — including chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, banana, root beer and the new cookies and cream — will get more children drinking the healthful beverage both at home and in school.
“It’s been very difficult to educate the people in the United States, but [aseptic milk] has been accepted pretty much all over the world except the United States,” she says. “Especially since they’re talking about there being too much soda pop in schools, you can’t beat it. When children have had the choice, they have preferred our milk over pasteurized milk, [which often] takes on the flavor of the carton. Ours has aluminum foil on the inside, so it doesn’t get that flavor.”
At the Logan retail store, Gossner explains, children visiting with their parents rush for their favorite flavored milk on arrival, and grandparents have been known to purchase cases of the milk for their grandchildren for birthdays and Christmas. The company is also working to provide its milk to daycare centers and Meals on Wheels programs.
Most companies would covet this kind of demand for their products, especially on the kind of marketing budget Gossner Foods has, which is practically nil.
“We really don’t advertise,” Wheeler says. “Our name is known in the state, where we sell cheese in local stores. But so much of our product goes outside the state, and it goes under other names, so we’ve never really invested a lot of money in advertising.”
Supporting the local community is money better spent, Wheeler says. “I think that’s the best advertising we can do. Particularly anything our employees or producers are involved in, we’ve tried to support. That means we support a lot of FFA and 4-H activities, as well as high school sports, rodeos, fairs and livestock sales in six counties, along with community fund raisers in Utah and Idaho,” she says. “Up at the university [Utah State in Logan], we put on the Gossner Classic, a holiday basketball tournament. That’s where we’ve really spent what I would call advertising money. I think the money we invest in that comes back tenfold, from people knowing we care about the community.”
It also hasn’t hurt that Gossner milk was featured prominently in “Napoleon Dynamite,” the 2004 movie filmed in Preston, Idaho, that has become something of a cult hit. Wheeler says the filmmaker offered to put the milk in his movie if the company would give him some for his cast and crew. She then forgot about it until about a year later when she started getting phone calls from people telling her about “the funniest movie I ever saw and your milk is in it.” Some movie-related souvenirs are now for sale in the Logan retail store.
But the limelight certainly isn’t what has given Gossner its strength in the dairy industry.
“It’s the service we give and the quality of our products,” Wheeler says, “and we’ve always had a competitive price.”
Part of the Community
Strength, too, comes from the family’s commitment to the business and the dedicated employees who give their all to make it work.
Wheeler took the reins of the company in 1984 “with really no experience when it came to running a factory,” she says. “I had been working on our farm with my husband and doing the payroll here. But the one advantage I had was that I knew all the people, working with what they now call ‘human resources.’ The one advantage I had that most women don’t is the fact that the men wanted me to take it over. They said, ‘You’re like your dad, and we don’t need someone to tell us how to do our job. We just need someone to pull us together.’
“We stepped into something that was very difficult but worked together to meet the challenges. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I wanted everyone to work together as a team. It worked, and that’s still our philosophy now. We don’t buy a piece of equipment in the plant unless the people who are going to be running it have an opportunity to help decide what we’re going to get.”
And just like Wheeler herself started in the plant, on the packaging line, the current managers all started on the ground floor. “Whatever job was available when they walked in the door, that’s the job they got. You talk about cream rising to the top,” she says.
It also helps that management and employees all live and work in the same community, encouraging a feeling of togetherness. “It makes you a lot more appreciative of what the people do, and makes you want to do a good job for them, because I see them every place,” Wheeler says. “If you go to the rodeo or the 4-H show or to buy groceries or to the restaurant, we run into employees and producers. It’s surely a lot better if they can smile at you. I think it’s made us a lot more understanding of the people who’ve made it all possible.”
That extends to the farming community as well, of which Wheeler and her family have long been a part. “My dad always told me, ‘You can’t make cheese out of water. Take care of your producers.’ I’ve never forgotten that,” she says. “When the milk price goes down, we’re very concerned, because we know it hurts our farmers. When I go home at night — I haven’t really counted how many dairies that ship milk to us that I drive by, but there’s got to be about 10 or 12. You see them out working. They’re special people. The biggest strength we have in America is that we can feed our people. Nobody does the job the American farmer does.”
Executive vice president Greg Rowley adds: “We try to take care of the producers, the employees and the customers. If you do those three things, I think you’re going to be successful. It’s worked here.”
The Road Ahead
Environmental issues are among the biggest challenges facing the U.S. dairy industry, Wheeler says, “starting on the farm, on through to processing. We’ve spent a lot of money to take care of our wastewater, and I know our farmers have, too. It is a huge issue, and I think it’s probably the thing we worry the most about. We do worry in this area about losing farmers, and that’s the main reason you lose them. A subdivision moves in next to them, and it’s not worth fighting.”
But Wheeler is still optimistic about growth in her company’s segment of the industry.
“Natural cheeses are a huge thing; people are trying different types of cheese,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve even come close in teaching the people of America what the Europeans already know about all the different types of cheeses. If an opportunity comes for a different type of cheese, we certainly would be looking at doing something different.”
However, the company is hesitant to look too far ahead. “People talk about their five-year plan or 10-year plan. We’ve always laughed and said ours is a five-minute plan,” Wheeler says. “If an opportunity comes along, we jump on it.”
Still, the long-term outlook is good. “I see growth, especially with the plant in Idaho. It’s certainly going to open up a lot of opportunities because we made the make room large enough that there’s a lot of different ways we can go with it,” Wheeler says. “We see more growth coming with the UHT plant. I think we’re versatile enough that there’s a lot of different ways we can go in the dairy industry, particularly with three different locations. I think in the next five years we’ll grow faster than we’ve ever grown before.”
Family Ties
What makes Gossner Foods unique? Certainly the family ownership is a big part of it. Management and longtime employees both have family members working in the company.
“Our daughters have worked here from the time they were young,” Wheeler says. “Dixie [Udy] has worked here since she was 16 years old. She is now the human resource director, and her husband Alan is responsible for the milk quality from all the dairy farms in Utah and Idaho. Trish [Gibbs] worked here and is on the board of directors. Now Trish’s daughter works here, and Dixie has two children working here.” That includes a granddaughter in the main office, plus one grandson in the milk lab and another who works at the Magic Valley plant. Also serving on the board of directors is niece Dawn Jones, daughter of Dolores’ late brother, Edwin Gossner Jr.
“I think we’ve been able to keep people and the family has stayed because everybody loves this area and they don’t want to leave,” Wheeler says. “All of our key people have had opportunities to go work for bigger companies. I think they know we will take care of them.
“There’s a real interest to keep this business [in the family]. They all respected Dad and Mother so much. They fought terrible obstacles, and the children have grown up learning that, how important it was to them. So there’s a lot of loyalty, a lot of history and a lot of pride here.”
Pride, too, in that Gossner Foods is about the last local family-owned business left in the Cache Valley. “We’ve made an investment in the business every year, a major investment of some sort, either equipment or buildings, or a combination,” Wheeler says. “That’s another reason why a lot of these good people have stayed, because they’ve watched the company grow, so they think there’s a future here.”
The company has indeed come a long way since its start 40 years ago, when the first cheese plant rose from a lonely alfalfa field amid snow-capped mountains, and all the milk came from the family’s own dairy farm.
“We went through some really tough times when I first starting managing,” Wheeler recalls. “We were in a meeting here and I said, ‘We’ve been to hell and back together.’ And Greg [Rowley] says, ‘I didn’t know we got out.’ But we did. We’re secure now and everyone has faith in one another about what the future is. There are so many people who truly care.”
With such a deep connection to one’s calling, you’d probably want it to last forever.
“People ask me when I’m going to retire,” Wheeler says, “and I always say I’m having too much fun.”
GOSSNER FOODS: A BRIEF HISTORY
Edwin Gossner Sr. was born in 1909 into a farming family in Switzerland. He came to the United States in 1930 and went to work in a Wisconsin cheese factory owned by his older brother, Ernest, who came to the States seven years earlier after graduating from the Swiss Cheesemaking School of Switzerland. Edwin Gossner spent the next three years learning to make Swiss cheese following the traditional methods of the old country. In 1933, he married Josephine Oechslin; they had two children, Edwin Jr. and Dolores.
The Gossners eventually moved to California, where Edwin accepted a position with the Rumiano family whose plant he converted from a dry Monterey jack to a Swiss cheese facility.
Looking for a place to make his own Swiss cheese, Edwin discovered Northern Utah’s Cache Valley while on vacation to Yellowstone National Park with his family in 1941. The Cache Valley had a climate and elevation closely resembling that of Switzerland, and offered an abundant supply of milk. Gossner soon moved to Utah and within five years he had built what was at the time the largest Swiss cheese-making factory in the world, producing 120 200-pound wheels of cheese a day.
In the ensuing years, Gossner was the guiding force in upgrading Cache Valley milk production to Grade A market status. Gossner also made important innovations such as introducing to the area the means of making processed cheese and a more efficient recovery method of whey by-products.
In 1966, Edwin Gossner and his family began anew by establishing the Gossner Foods operation people know today. Starting with a half vat of milk (12,500 pounds) every other day, Gossner Foods now uses a million pounds of milk a day for cheese production. Eventually more than 30 varieties of manufactured and packaged cheeses carried the Gossner name.
In 1973, Edwin Gossner helped establish Swiss Village, a cheese manufacturing plant in Nampa, Idaho; this plant was later sold to J.R. Simplot and is currently owned by Sorrento Lactalis. In 1982, Gossner launched a line of aseptically packaged fluid milk products, which allowed the company to open up new marketing avenues rather than compete with the local Grade A milk market. Today, Gossner milk travels all over the world with U.S. troops, and it is sold in Latin America, Asia and other places where milk supplies and refrigeration are limited.
The mainstay of Gossner Foods continues to be Swiss cheese, made using the same formula that Edwin Gossner developed years ago to yield cheese with a milder flavor and softer body than other Swiss cheeses. Gossner Foods utilizes state-of-the-art equipment for cheesemaking and aseptic packaging, and continues to explore new ideas to expand offerings for the Gossner brand as well as a long list of branded, private label and foodservice customers.
In 1984, with her father in ill health and her brother having left the company, Dolores Gossner Wheeler became president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Gossner Foods. Her husband, Allen Wheeler, and their daughters serve as directors of the company.
Edwin Gossner died in 1987, leaving behind a corps of caring, knowledgeable and well-trained employees that the family credits for making Gossner Foods the successful family business that it continues to be today.