Ben Biery leads Biery Cheese to many firsts in pursuit of growth

 

Around 2010, Ben Biery, CEO of Biery Cheese, set a few goals. One of those goals had to do with the company’s growth; the other related to its operations.

Much of the cheese maker’s business is private label products for retail customers such as The Kroger Co. and Aldi Inc., retailers that are constantly growing. Their suppliers, then, need to match their pace both from a product growth and volume standpoint, and in terms of growth of ideas.

“If you’re not on the same growth strategy as them, they will find somebody else to service their needs down the road,” Ben says.

This led to the expansion of Biery’s home base in Louisville, Ohio, that nearly doubled the size of its facility.

The company’s other goal was to get closer to its Wisconsin customers. In 2013, the company bought the business of Kickapoo Valley Cheese in Sherry, Wisconsin. The Kickapoo facility, however, was too landlocked and not big enough to enable Biery to accomplish the goals it set out in its strategic plan.

The company soon found the empty facility of Basic American Foods in Plover, Wisconsin. Biery Cheese renovated the property and moved into it in 2015. In doing so, it met two more goals. It achieved logistic and cost efficiencies to help it reach the 15 percent of its customer base that’s located in Wisconsin, and it reduced its risk by creating operational redundancies.

“When suppliers look at us as a viable option, when you look at the large brands out there from a grocery retail standpoint and also from a local perspective, it gives reassurance to them that we have a second location in case something happens to the first location,” Ben says.

Adding the second location also gave the company an economy of scale — the lowest-cost product with the highest quality and highest level of food safety to appease customers that continuously look for cost reductions and the assurance that supply would be minimally affected were disaster to strike.

Underlying its significant growth during the past seven years were new challenges: leading a company spread across two states, incorporating acquired employees into Biery’s culture and through it all developing and launching the first branded products in the company’s nearly 90-year history.

The future respects the past

As Biery brought the former Kickapoo Valley Cheese employees into the fold, one question Ben kept at the forefront was how the Kickapoo organization was going to fit culturally. Figuring that out meant meeting a lot of the people and talking with them to determine how well they know the business and whether they would be able to adapt.

The strategy once the deal was finalized was to move the people from the acquired company very quickly into the Biery culture, but not without respect for their roots.

“They have to maintain some independence,” Ben says. “You’re not acquiring them to get rid of their history. You’re acquiring them to bring part of their history in to you, too.”

To make that idea more apparent, Ben hung the Kickapoo company’s old sign up on the wall of the newly renovated facility.

IT systems were installed immediately to make sure that reporting was up and running. The company set a strategy for leveraging data and facilitating communication that hinged on the concept of quickly identifying opportunities to improve.

“A lot of it revolves around how fast can we get an answer and data to somebody so that they can spend the time answering, ‘how do I fix this’ versus, ‘what is the answer?’”

Organizationally, Biery put leaders and managers in place within the plants and empowered them to manage their day within a decision protocol and goal structure that emphasizes what needs to be achieved, but allows each person to take ownership within the company.

“Just because my last name’s on the building doesn’t mean that I’m the only one that owns it,” Ben says. “I view it is as the whole company owns it together because we all have invested time and effort into this operation.”

As the organization grows — it has nearly 525 people in Ohio and 140 in Wisconsin — it’s necessary to recognize that each employee has a role to play within the organization in order to make it successful. In some ways, Ben says he’s still working out how to put responsibility in people’s hands, let them perform the task and then evaluate based off how they perform.

“I’m learning every day about how to manage this way because it is different. You can’t take it all on yourself,” Ben says. “As you proceed every day, the business changes. Different skill sets require different types of managing, different types of delegation. It has been a change, but it’s a very good change. We’re putting people in places who we know can operate and take ownership within their areas.”

Something to prove

Biery wants to ensure it’s delivering innovative products to the marketplace, whether that’s in packaging or product.

The company recently developed sliced and cubed cheese packages; snacking cheeses; meat, cheese and cracker trays; new cheese varieties; and for the past year-and-a-half, the company has, for the first time in its nearly 90-year history, moved into branded items.

Private label business, he says, isn’t based on new, innovative products or new flavor profiles. That’s considered too narrow or too risky. With all its decades of established private label business behind it, the company looked forward to imagine what else it could be.

“When I look out three, five, 10 years down the road, who is Biery Cheese going to be? Where do they fit into this marketplace? You see crazy mergers and acquisitions today, so we have to figure out what do we do well, and then leverage those opportunities. One thing that we do very well from a company standpoint is ideation — coming up with new, sometimes crazy, off-the-wall ideas to send out there. When you ask, ‘how can we take this strength that we have and apply it to the marketplace?’ The best avenue that we had thought about was a branded strategy,” Ben says.

But first, Biery has to prove that it can be more than a private label packager.

“We’re going to have to change the mindset,” Ben says. “We’re not one or the other. In today’s world, there are a lot of large companies that are both.”

Like anything, Ben says it takes time and steady reinforcement of the brand while strategically identifying the right customers for its branded products. All of those factors come into play in its marketing, advertising and packaging campaigns to align in a uniform look and voice.

Biery launched its first branded products in October 2015, first in Stark County and then in Western Pennsylvania. Company projections show those products will be in some 4,000 stores by the end of this year. Still, the majority of Biery’s business is private label grocery chain — nearly 85 percent of sales.

Private label has been and will continue to be a very critical aspect of Biery’s business. But it’s making noise with its branded items. Ben says the company won an award this past year for its bacon-stuffed cheese and has developed a Fuego Jack cheese — a Colby Jack cheese with jalapenos and other hot pepper varieties.

A philosophy more than a name

The company, which was started by Ben’s great-grandfather in 1929 and produced Swiss cheese from area dairy farmers’ unsold milk, is now operating under its fourth-generation Biery. His father, Dennis Biery, who retired nearly seven years ago, had the ominous disposition of being the third-generation family ownership, the one that typically struggles to maintain the success of the business. But Ben says his dad’s strengths were determination and drive. He never settled.

When Ben joined the business in 2000, his father had grown the employee count from nine to 80, a jump that required the creation of significant infrastructure to manage. He was in charge of the company’s first acquisition, Casier Foods in New York, and developed a number of its products.

Dennis also developed the company’s employees, many who have worked with the company for a long time, before passing some of his philosophies on to Ben as the next generation of leadership.

“When I look at the business, I look at it as this is a business that my great-grandfather started,” he says. “Out of respect for him and the second generation, Harold, and the third generation, my responsibility is to continue this, and that should be my first obligation — to keep it going. The way that you do that is by developing people to help you through that. That’s really what has helped keep us in the four generations of making sure that that vision is aligned.”

As the company readies its potential shift to a fifth generation of Biery leadership —Ben’s children are ages 10 and 11 — Ben says he’s thinking about the transition.

“A Biery doesn’t necessarily have to run the business, but the philosophy of where we go and how we’ve gotten there continues,” he says.

 

Takeaways

  • Empower people in your organization to take ownership.
  • A company’s history is important to its future.
  • Identify your strengths and follow where they take you.

The Biery File

NAME: Ben Biery
TITLE: CEO
COMPANY: Biery Cheese

Born: Canton, Ohio.

Education: Bachelors degree, business management, Walsh University.

What was your first job? My first job was working at a Marathon station. I worked cashier and I did lube, oil, filter changes.

Which is more difficult: Hitting 35 career home runs for the Walsh Cavaliers or performing the hustle in front of the Canton Palace Theater crowd for Dancing with the Stars? I was more nervous for Dancing with the Stars at the Palace. My hands were wringing. It was a lot of fun.
The Palace Theater runs its fundraiser for improvements. I think it’s seven or eight years now that they’ve been doing this. They get eight or 10 people within the community and pair them with eight or 10 dancers, and each dancer goes out and fundraises and all that fundraising money that comes back goes to the palace for improvements. I think we’ve raised, like, $50,000 as a group of 16 people, which was really cool.

You had some great numbers as a collegiate baseball player, enough to get inducted onto the Walsh Wall of Fame in 2008. Did you entertain the idea of playing professionally? I played for the Canton Crocodiles for a time. It was the Frontier League, which traveled from St. Louis to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I coached for part of it and I played for part of it. I would have loved to be drafted by an affiliated team. That would have been a lifelong dream come true.

Fortunately, I was able to play in the Frontier League, which gave me some great experiences, some great relationships with people and a small peek of that lifestyle. Living out of suitcases is not fun.