100 Years And Growing
by James Dudlicek
Robert Dairy enters its second century confident in its formula for good business.

 

The year 1906 might be best known for the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, but to folks in Nebraska, it’s the year J.R. Roberts made his first milk deliveries in Lincoln, the capital of the Cornhusker State.
A century later, Omaha-based Roberts Dairy is still going strong, enjoying brand loyalty and a reputation for quality in its seven-state marketing area in the Midwest. The centennial celebration has provoked a warm response from hometown consumers.
“We’ve had call-ins and unsolicited responses on our Web site such as ‘My grandfather worked for Roberts’ or ‘My dad worked for Roberts,’” says company president Jeff Powell. “People bring up different things that J.R. Roberts did in the Omaha market, and they’ll share some of their experiences and the history with us. A lady called the other day saying her dad was one of the original cheesemakers here in Omaha. You get that kind of support in the local area — our roots, our foundation.”  
To be sure, Roberts Dairy has come a long way from J.R.’s small herd of cows to a full-line processor, jointly owned by Prairie Farms Dairy Inc. and Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), with $250 million in annual sales. (Prairie Farms is the managing partner, while DFA provides the milk.)
Roberts puts its brand on a full line of milk and other fluid products, cottage cheese, sour cream and dips, yogurt, ice cream, juice and drinks — in all, about 350 SKUs.  It also co-packs for several major retailers and provides ice cream mix for Dairy Queen stores.
“As a spinoff of the 100 years, we look to move forward,” Powell says. “I think the billboard out front probably says it best: ‘100 Years and Still Fresh Every Day.’”
Celebrating a Century
Roberts Dairy considers June 1 its official anniversary date, but centennial activities actually began more than a year ago, with a revamped brand logo, new trailer graphics and fixing up the company’s historic horse-drawn milk wagon to participate in parades and other community events.
“We decided to make the 100th anniversary the centerpiece for our marketing this year,” says corporate marketing director Al Streeter. “Not too many companies, let alone dairies, survive 100 years under the same name, and we thought there was a lot of marketing capital. We also wanted to thank our customers by having appearances at special events in all the markets we serve.”
In anticipation of the milestone, Roberts filmed a series of nostalgic television commercials in Woodbine, Iowa, during the summer of 2005, featuring the old horse-drawn milk wagon to help create an old-fashioned look for the spots. The production generated such excitement that the residents of Woodbine hailed January 25, 2006, as “Roberts Dairy Day” with a community-wide celebration.
Response to the festivities has been positive throughout the company’s marketing area.
“It’s been excellent. We’re about halfway through the calendar year and we’ve had four or five events,” Streeter says during a July visit. “We had a families’ day at the [Omaha] children’s theater. It was our birthday, so we gave birthday cake, milk and ice cream to all our customers to thank them. We had a great crowd the whole time, even though we had 100-degree temperatures. It’s been a very good response.”
That extends to the updated logo Roberts rolled out in conjunction with the centennial. The new graphics were chosen after extensive development that included consumer focus groups. “The artwork has been extremely well received,” Powell says. “We’ve gotten unsolicited calls and comments in all our markets about what a great new look we have. We think it’s a great tribute to the Roberts’ 100th anniversary to get that kind of accolade, that we’re still moving forward with innovation, a new look, new packaging and meeting consumers’ needs.”
The celebration could be seen as not just of Roberts Dairy, but of the many family-oriented companies acquired over the years to create the current larger operation that still retains a very family-oriented attitude in the way it does business. The Fairmont and Zarda dairies of Kansas City, Mo., and the Swaner family operation in Iowa City, Iowa, all were integral parts of today’s Roberts Dairy.
“It’s always had a family feel as all these operations had,” says Jerry Steffensmeier, Iowa City Division manager. “In Iowa, there were nearly 500 dairies in the late-’40s. Now, there’s literally just a handful, so to survive that is a pretty neat deal. We have a pretty good legacy and we make our people aware of that. It’s a good source of pride in what we do and who we are.”
Powell adds: “If you take a look at Roberts’ foundation, we were a number of small family-type operations when we started. There’s a lot of family-type core values, and we believe that while we’re a fairly large company, we also operate with what we believe are core values that are the real strengths of our company. Treating people right, treating them in the manner which you’d like to be treated, taking their thoughts and ideas into consideration, making them a part of the process.  This is how we work with our people.”
Serving a Market
Roberts Dairy holds a place of high esteem among hometown consumers. It’s Omaha’s dominant brand, according to annual polling by the Omaha World-Herald, which ranked Roberts’ milk, cottage cheese and sour cream the favorites in those categories.
“We’ve had dominant market share eight years in a row in Omaha,” Powell notes. “Kansas City’s paper used to run Kansas City favorites; four years in a row, we were the dominant brand in Kansas City. What’s interesting there, we took multiple names of multiple dairies and combined them into Roberts over the years. When you change your name that many times in one market, you’ve really got to put a full-court press on to try to gain that dominance back, and we’ve done that.”
How has Roberts been able to maintain such dominance?
“Freshness is one of our main messages,” explains Jon Bebermeyer, general sales manager. “We’re a local dairy, so one of our driving things is freshness. Another is service. We’re extremely service-oriented with all of our customers. We try to respond very quickly to their needs.”
Meeting those needs are a host of products across nearly all dairy categories. “Our newest product is Skim Extra, which is a fortified skim that looks and tastes like 2 percent,” Streeter says. “Personally, our household has been drinking skim for 10 years or more, and we switched over to it and really like it. We also recently introduced a 6-ounce yogurt that’s fat free and sweetened with Splenda. That’s also been an appealing product. It’s high in nutrition and low in calories. All of our products have a very good nutritional profile. People are more and more concerned every day with spending their calories wisely, and dairy really fills the bill.”
Bebermeyer adds: “We’ve tried to target kids with the nutritional and obesity issues there. We’ve got a new skim strawberry out, formulated just for kids. Other flavored milk items are either nonfat or lowfat.”
Roberts Dairy has been able to leverage the school milk successes of parent Prairie Farms, which has boosted sales through new packaging, formulations and marketing tactics. “We’ve utilized Prairie’s success as far as changing graphics, changing packaging, more vibrant colors, working on the flavor profile, offering vanilla and strawberry products,” Powell says. “We’ve been able to springboard all of that. That’s been a great part of our affiliation with Prairie Farms. They led the charge with that, and we’ve just dovetailed right in with what they’ve done. It’s been a real plus for us. We saw some nice increases.”
Meanwhile, Roberts does a brisk co-packing business. While most of the company’s output is for the Roberts brand, Powell says how the rest breaks down depends on the specific market. “If you look at our IRI data, you’ll see the Roberts brand is the market leader in Omaha, Kansas City and outstate Iowa. We also are the dominant private label supplier as well,” he says. “So it’s really a mix of products. We’ve got a strong private label following. We serve all the major retailers in all four of our markets with private label, but we have the Roberts brand that’s strong.”
So that means that most people in Roberts’ core markets are drinking Roberts milk one way or another. “There’s nobody who we supply with private label that doesn’t also buy our brand,” Powell says.
Challenges
Roberts Dairy is embarking on its second century in business facing many of the same hurdles that confront all companies: the soaring price of fuel, the rising cost of insurance, the general increase in the cost of doing business across the board.
“How do you incorporate those costs, keep the price competitive and take to the street and be competitive in the market? That’s an ongoing, day-in-and-day-out challenge,” Powell says. “When you have a million-dollar increase in fuel, when you have a $1.8 million increase in insurance costs — those are day-in-and-day-out operational issues, and you can’t always pass those on to the market. So you’ve got to continually look for ways to be more efficient. On a larger scale, you want to take a look at what do we do to offset the declining consumer consumption of dairy products. That’s a challenge the entire industry faces. The obesity issue, fitness, lifestyle and healthy attitudes are a big plus. We’ve obviously got nature’s most perfect food, and we’ve got to continue to push that and bring consumers back to the table, if you will, so milk isn’t just a staple of breakfast but a part of everyday lifestyles.”
The fact that milk can be found in new channels beyond traditional grocery retailers, such as convenience and drug stores, presents its own challenges, Streeter says.
“Because of innovations in packaging, and single-serves in particular, and with the success of MilkPEP and some of the educational things, we’re putting milk in more and more channels,” he says. “But consumption hasn’t really increased to that extent. So that means we’re making more stops in more places to actually deliver the same amount of milk, which makes a challenge on the side of distribution.”
However, Streeter does think that new channels like c-stores and vending will breed consumption in the long run. “I hold a lot of hope for that when you see the younger generation looking for something else in the drinks they use. They’re no longer slaves to colas — they’re trying other drinks,” he says. “Since they are looking for value in what they drink, milk’s got a story to tell right there. It has a lot of value for the product compared to a lot of other beverage choices they could make.”
Powell takes the idea further. “We’re operating in some arenas today that we hadn’t considered in prior years. You’ve got the mass merchandisers and the box stores. You’ve got the national chains. You’ve got the regional chains. You’ve got the mom-and-pop operations. You’ve got multiple foodservice companies out there that are growing by leaps and bounds that take over some of the distribution aspect and give us avenues for getting product to market,” he says.
“Additionally, there are some industrial and commercial users of our products that we’ve had success with. I think MilkPEP is carrying the charge. We need to continue pushing the health aspects of the products. We need to capture the young consumers. We feel like we’ve got an opportunity to grab the consumers when they’re young and hopefully that carries through to the future.”
In all, the folks at Roberts Dairy envision continued success by following the trail blazed during the company’s first century.
“The celebration of our 100 years is a celebration of our people and their achievements. There’s a lot of companies out there that bottle milk. What we sell is service,” Powell says. “Our people are passionate about the service they provide. In our company, we say it’s doing the common things uncommonly well. We deliver to the customer and try to exceed the expectations out there. The basic blocking and tackling that we do at our company on the day-to-day operations has been a formula for success.
“When you look at the celebration of our 100th anniversary, it’s our employees, it’s our customers, it’s our owners and it’s our suppliers, and it’s been a great partnership between these four entities. It’s a proven formula of success for the past 100 years, and we’ll continue to build on that as we move forward. We’ve got a strong brand in a market. We’ve got a high level of consistent quality. Those are expectations the market has of us.”
One Big Happy
Roberts Dairy prides itself on being a family-oriented company inside and out — that is, placing a high value on the development of its employees as well as the needs and concerns of its customers and consumers.
Powell is proud to relate example after example of employees taking great pride in their work, claiming ownership of their assigned duties. “You can walk out on to the plant floor and an operator will talk to you about ‘my operation,’” he says. “There was an article about the Iowa City operation, quoting the milk receiver there saying, ‘It’s not milk until I say it’s milk.’ In Omaha, Dick Quinlin, a garage mechanic, just celebrated his 20th anniversary with a perfect attendance record. Dick is proud of his 20-year accomplishment.”
Plant employee Patrick Sweaney, a 22-year Roberts veteran and the union steward for Teamsters Local 554 at the company, says the union gets along very well with management. Plant manager Deron Welty notes that many Roberts employees have been on the job for two decades or more.
“When you look at other industries in the manufacturing field,” says Thomas Fredrickson, corporate human resource manager, “our turnover is far lower than the industry average. We’ve had some retirements in the last year or two probably averaging 30 to 35 years with the company. They’re very committed, very loyal, very dedicated people. It’s something you can really build on when you have a good core group of people who care.”
Do the folks at Roberts see what some others in the industry have reported, that future dairy leadership is at risk because of fewer young people entering this very labor-intensive, time-demanding line of work?
“I don’t see that,” Steffensmeier says. “At all our locations, we’ve been very fortunate to have good predecessors, good leadership in the past establish some good core values to carry forward. We have a lot of people that stick around for a long time. Our younger people do. I think the quality of our work force is very high, and that’s what sets us apart. I think that’s what’s carried us this many years and I think that’s what will carry us into the future — maintaining the quality and consistency that we have, and keeping the momentum going.”
Fredrickson acknowledges it gets more difficult over time to offer competitive benefit packages while maximizing profits, but Roberts remains an attractive place to work. “Perfect case in point: We were looking for people to work in our cooler. We put an ad in last weekend’s paper and we had 50 people fill out applications on Monday morning. We had over 200 in two days,” he says. “People want to come here to work, and this is a good place to work. A lot of people who work here will refer other people, and we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to maintain a good work force.”
Taking that family-oriented attitude beyond the plant walls, Roberts Dairy gets involved with hundreds of local events beyond those geared toward the centennial celebration, including fundraising for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“We’re usually out at events giving away product and supporting those folks that sponsor these fundraisers that help the local community,” Bebermeyer says. “We also have developed these ABC coupon booklets — Always Best for Children. We give those away to organizations that are trying to raise funds. They’re full of coupons for our products. They sell those for a dollar or two, and they’ve got 10 dollars worth of values inside. It’s a great way for groups to easily raise funds to accomplish what they’re trying to do.”
The Next 100 Years
So, what’s the outlook for Roberts Dairy for the next century?
OK, how about the next five years?
“While we like to take a leadership role in the market, and we do in the markets we operate in, we always keep a keen ear to listen to our consumers and our customers, and that’s a pretty wide depth of folks,” Powell says. “They’ll give the direction of what they want, and I believe we have the resources to meet their needs.”
That job is made somewhat easier, Powell says, by Roberts’ ownership by dairy giants DFA and Prairie Farms. “We enjoy the benefits of some phenomenal resources in the market, but with the small-town family core values,” he says. “We can go to market pretty quick. We can get to market as quick as it takes packaging to be available. So if there’s a trend, we’ll be a part of that process. While Roberts has been known for its innovation — homogenization, blow molding, that sort of thing — we’re also a pretty quick ‘me-too’ company.
“Our ideas are really a product of our suppliers. It’s the Daniscos, the Giuvadans, the Dairy Houses and the CCIs of the world that help us with new items. And if we don’t have something, one of our sister companies in the organization probably does, and we have access to those resources.”
The Roberts executive roundtable presents some diverse opinions about what makes the company unique against others in the dairy industry.
“I think it would have to be our people and the challenges our people live for on a daily basis,” says Dayle Reynolds, manager of quality assurance and safety.
Streeter agrees: “It’s the people who got us to where we are today. With a hundred years of experience and a lot of longtime employees, I think that’s the key to developing people for the future. When they come on here and they train, they’re training with people who have done the job for quite a while, have inculcated our way of working and are very quality driven. I don’t know if it’s unique to us, but I know it’s one of the major benefits that Roberts enjoys.”
For division manager Jeffrey Kerschner, it’s “listening to the consumer and the customer, and making sure those needs are fulfilled daily, monthly — whatever it takes. No two days are the same. That’s really the excitement in a dairy operation.”
Bebermeyer reiterates the importance of resources from Roberts’ owners. “There’s people that have been in this industry for decades and have seen it all and provide the leadership,” he says. “If there’s a question, somebody in our organization has the answer. While we’re a relatively small company as Roberts Dairy, we have the resources of a major company behind us. We can be nimble, but can move mountains if we need to.”
For Fredrickson, it’s the small-company culture. “We have all these separate divisions that started as family enterprises that still maintain a separate culture,” he says, “but we all still row in the same direction at the end of the day.”
Just still being around after 100 years is unique for Steffensmeier. “There were probably a thousand dairies in the market areas that we serve at one time or another that aren’t here,” he says. “As you look at that, it has to come down to the people. They take ownership in what they do. You don’t see that in a lot of places in the world today.”
All those qualities, Powell says, make Roberts Dairy a standout in the industry. “The fact that we have a 100-year history and our competitors don’t. The fact that we have the strength of our people, their passion for service, the consistency of a high-quality branded product,” he says. “At the same time, we enjoy the luxury of being able to serve national accounts because we’re a part of this overall organization that has national accounts. If we have to make a decision quickly, nine times out of 10 our local managers will respond and have it resolved, and a lot of times I won’t even know about it until after the fact. We’ve got a decentralized management style. In that kind of a culture, there’s a can-do attitude about making things happen. That responsiveness to customers really makes us unique.”  
A Century of Roberts Dairy
In 1906, J.R. Roberts began home delivery of milk produced by his herd of 60 cows near Lincoln, Neb. During these early years, J.R. quickly built his reputation by delivering fresh, high-quality dairy products to doorsteps all over town.
The venture soon grew into a plant in downtown Lincoln. At the time, Roberts was the only dairy that sold pasteurized milk to the community. As the dairy industry grew and delivery areas became larger, J.R. hired additional milkmen to deliver to Roberts’ ever-increasing customer base two or three times per week.
Around 1910, horse-drawn wagons were used to expedite delivery. The most famous of the delivery horses was named Old Tom, who traveled about 75,000 miles during his 20 years of service and helped deliver nearly 3 million bottles of milk.
The years from 1918 to 1929 were a period of great expansion for Roberts Dairy. A branch was opened in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1918. Then in 1922, Roberts expanded to Omaha, where business grew rapidly with as many as 20 new customers per route per day.
During the 1920s and ’30s, demand for Roberts products became so great that milk was purchased from area dairy farmers, who provided hundreds of five-gallon cans of milk to Roberts every day. While trucks were used for shipment to far-reaching areas to maintain freshness, Roberts still used horse-drawn wagons for delivery as late as 1929.
During the 1950s, Roberts introduced two unique products to the market: 2% milk enhanced with vitamin C and a patented “Ready Egg” product — one of the first “instant” products available.
The 1960s heralded tremendous growth for Roberts Dairy with the purchase of Skyline Dairy in Lincoln, Neb.; the Sterns, Robinson and Arvada-Gibson dairies in Denver; Royal Dairy in Omaha; and Roberts Perfection Foods in Orlando, Fla. Fairacres Foods in Grand Island was purchased in 1971, the same year Roberts Perfection Foods was sold.
In 1972, American Beef purchased the stock of J. Gordon Roberts, and in 1975 when American Beef filed for bankruptcy, Cal Fisher and Dick Westin purchased Roberts’ assets. The Roberts plant in Denver was then sold to the Robinson brothers.
The ’80s were a dynamic decade for Roberts Dairy. In January 1980, Roberts Dairy was sold to Mid-America Dairymen, which formed a joint venture with Prairie Farms Dairy, both cooperatives owned by Midwest dairy farmers. A fluid milk plant formerly owned by Prairie Farms in Des Moines and a plant owned by Mid-America Dairymen in Iowa City eventually became part of the Roberts company.
In 1989, Roberts acquired the Fairmont-Zarda milk and ice cream plants in Kansas City, Mo. Two years later, Roberts was given the responsibility of managing the Mid-America-owned Gillette ice cream and fluid milk plant in Norfolk, Neb.
In 1994, the production of Fairmont-Zarda ice cream was moved to the Gillette plant in Norfolk. That same year, fluid production at the Gillette plant was sold to Roberts Dairy and added to Roberts’ Omaha plant.
In May 1996, Mid-America Dairymen sold the Gillette ice cream plant in Norfolk, Neb., to joint-venture partners Roberts and Hiland Dairy of Springfield, Mo, forming the Hiland-Roberts Ice Cream Co.
In 2002, Roberts Dairy initiated its “Quality Brigade” and “Roberts Rules” campaigns aimed at encouraging milk consumption by children. Efforts touted the nutritional value of milk over soda in establishing and maintaining good health.
During its affiliation with Quality Chekd Dairies Inc., Roberts Dairy received national recognition in 2003 when it won Quality Awards for its milk and cultured products. Roberts also won two of Quality Chekd’s Zimmerman Awards for its marketing programs, a Gingrich Award for best single plant operation and was three times a finalist for the Weber Award for best total company operation.
Roberts Dairy was named 2005 Vendor of the Year by the Iowa Grocer’s Association for its support of the association’s various grocer members and sponsoring programs and events that help make communities better places to live.
Currently, Roberts Dairy operates three round-the-clock production plants and 10 distribution centers in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, and manages the joint-venture Hiland-Roberts ice cream plant.
Roberts now serves a region that includes Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and parts of Colorado, Illinois and South Dakota. Based in Omaha, Roberts employs more than 700 individuals and generates annual sales exceeding $250 million with its vast selection of dairy foods and beverages.