The Family Mold

Thomas Wiskerchen, Kathy Burnett, and John Wiskerchen continue the cheese company that their father started as a co-op in 1936.

John Wiskerchen of Wiskerchen Cheese, Inc. discusses ...
▶ family values
▶ working at a young age
▶ regulatory challenges
▶ staying in business for 75 years

Next year marks the 75th year anniversary of the Wiskerchen family’s successful cheese company, Wiskerchen Cheese, Inc. The Wiskerchen’s have been manufacturing cheese since 1936. Learn from John Wiskerchen about how the company grew to be one of the largest manufacturers of blue-veined cheeses in the nation.

How long have you been in the industry?
My whole life, essentially. I started part-time in 1981.

Do you have a work strategy that you employ for success? 
Lead by example. Leadership is about decision making. You will not be right all of the time, but you better be right 90 percent of the time; otherwise, people begin to lose confidence. Do not expect your employees to do anything that you would not.

STRATEGY TO SHARE: Customer Loyalty

“At the end of the day, having long-term dedicated customers is the best reward. A company can produce the finest product or service, but without repeat sales from a quality customer base, any mission will be short-lived. It is management’s responsibility to nurture a culture where there is the best opportunity for success.”

Why is it important to keep this a family business? 
Decision making is much quicker. Also, people usually like to be led, not managed. What are some core family values the company has upheld throughout the years?  Once you commit to something, you do not renege on a promise. Do unto others what you would like done unto you.

Do you plan to pass this company on to your own children? 
Our children will be encouraged to pursue their passions, whatever they may be.

Would you ever sell the business?
Every prudent business owner needs to create the best value for all shareholders and stakeholders.

How did you become one of the leading manufacturers of blue cheese in the United States?
Through a combination of great products and services, adherence to high-quality and food-safety standards, and a great network of customer partners.

What is the cheese-making process like?  
Expensive and time consuming. [It’s] a combination of art and science. Ultimately, you are starting with farm-fresh milk and ending with a great piece of cheese.

How do American-made cheeses compete with those from overseas? 
Many cheeses have relatively short shelf lives so extensive shipping is not always an option. Domestic-cheese consumption continues to grow, and domestic producers are making some of the best products in the world. US consumers are looking for great cheeses at competitive pricing.

How do you envision the next 75 years for the company? 
It is very difficult to speculate on the distant future. We end up spending 80 percent of our time working on current projects and 20 percent on long-term planning. As long as there are global customers looking for high-quality, safe food products, there will be a need for great manufacturers.

Has the fact that it is a family business influenced your success as a company? 
There are many terrific private and public companies across all sectors. In a family business, every shareholder has a very vested interest in long-term success. It is the goal to instill some of that sense of ownership to all employees.

by the numbers

1988
the year Wiskerchen Cheese, Inc. became incorporated

75
years the business has been in operation

120
approximation of total employees at Wiskerchen Cheese, Inc.

15,000,000
pounds of cheese the company produces annually
150 stock keeping units (SKU)

Did growing up in the family business have any advantages/disadvantages? 
Being encouraged to work at an early age was not always seen as a positive thing at the time, but looking back, it is the foundation of one’s work ethic. Having multiple family members at one company requires a distribution of responsibilities. You need to understand individual talents and capitalize on them.

What is your favorite part about the job?  
Knowing that my employees are finding job satisfaction and are able to make a good living, coupled with positive customer feedback.

What are some unique challenges you face in this line of work? 
It’s critical to control the cost of raw materials and every component that affects your production. We have a saying here that, “the customer is not concerned with your cost of production.” Dairy manufacturing is under increasing regulatory scrutiny and, unfortunately, the volatile nature of the commodity markets is probably here to stay.

Do you have any advice for people who are seeking to pursue a similar career as you or even start a business with family? 
Dairy manufacturing is not glamorous and is very capital intensive. Food production in general is a little more recession proof than some industries, because people always need to eat. Like any other business, you need to tap individual talents and know that you are all working on common goals.