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Udder excellence Featured

8:43am EDT February 25, 2005
Turner Dairy Farms Inc.'s marketing once urged consumers to drink its milk slowly to taste the difference between it and the product of others.

Consumers don't do much slowly these days, so they might easily miss that advertising message. Nonetheless, Turner Dairy has rested its reputation on the high quality of its product. When consumers know the quality tale, it's not difficult to convince them to buy, says Chuck Turner, president of the 74-year-old Penn Hills business founded by his grandfather.

"The story part is easy," says Turner. "The hard part is distribution."

Turner Dairy milk consistently places high in national taste and quality competitions, earning first place last year in two such contests -- one sponsored by the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association and another by the All Star Dairy Association.

A state-of-the-art testing lab installed in 2003 ensures that the milk purchased from a network of 60 dairy farms in Western Pennsylvania meets Turner Dairy quality standards. Last year, the 145-employee milk processor poured $500,000 into a new bottling line that installs the same tamper-resistant caps on all of its bottle containers. Its next big project is a much-needed cooler expansion.

"When we automate, we try to do it so there's product improvement or service improvement, and not just efficiencies," says Turner.

Turner gets plenty of help from his father, Charles Sr., and his uncle, Walter, both still active in the business, and several cousins and other family members work for the company as well.

Turner says the company is in the process of creating a management structure that will allow the business to grow while not undoing the informal family atmosphere that has encouraged growth and fostered loyalty among its employees.

Chuck Turner spoke with Smart Business about business longevity, why quality matters and the 30-second decision.

What does it take for a family business to survive into its third generation?

I think it's really this commitment to quality and my grandfather's philosophy. We never did any of these things where you sit down and brainstorm a mission statement and a vision.

This is the way my grandfather did business, and we just, in 30 seconds, decided to adopt it: "Perfect products, perfect service, treat people right." I have a bunch of these flyers from the '60s and give them out to customers a lot of times with our current one, and you can look in there and see the philosophy hasn't changed.

What that means does change. If we still thought that quality products were the same as when my grandfather started here in 1930 -- then it meant pasteurized and it wouldn't kill you. Now it means something a lot different.

Same thing with customer service requirements. You can see there it used to be all home delivery trucks. We had 44 routes at one time taking products to customers' doors. Now it means taking care of grocery stores, convenience stores, hospitals, and trying to identify these customer segments and what they need, and what they're looking for in service.

We talk a lot about change as we're going through it, a transition from second generation to third, and some things have to stay the same for us to be successful because they're timeless. But what they mean and how we put hands and feet on them has to change. A lot of people talk about treating the customer right, and we mean that to the fullest, but we mean everybody, starting with our employees and our dairy farmers.

They take care of our customers. I hardly ever see customers. If we take care of the guys driving milk trucks, running filling machines and milking cows, they'll take care of customers. And it also extends to our community and our neighbors and our suppliers.

How is the management of the company evolving to accommodate growth?

What we're in the transition toward is a more professional management environment. I'll give you a good example. Our distribution manager's ... been our distribution manager for at least 10 years, and he was assistant before that and he's great at what he does. He needs to be in charge of that, and he is.

We have other areas of the operation where we have some way to go to get to that, where there are still people who feel they need to ask me for an OK. And that's a two-way street; I need to let go of that and they need to take it on. It's going well. In some areas it's going great. In others, we've got some work to do.

We meet regularly as a family. We also meet regularly as a managers group and have a third meeting with our salespeople. We're not talking only about family issues in family meetings, and we're not always talking about management issues in management meetings, but we're getting there.

How has the business changed since your grandfather started it in 1930?

The thing that has changed the most and keeps changing is customer expectations, from product quality to where they want to buy it to how they want it packaged, what flavors they want. We just introduced new products with new tamperproof packaging. Customers are funny; they want the high tamper-proof package in this age of potential terrorism. It has be the most tamper-evident it can be.

But if they can't get it open without any problems ever, they're not happy, either. We just finished a big project last summer to get all of our bottles with the same closure. That's the kind of thing you have to do to keep customers happy.

How has the use of technology improved your operations?

We feel like we get the returns on it. First, we can make better products with the technology. The second reason is there are labor efficiencies.

I think one of the things that differentiates us from what the other guys are doing is that as their distribution system gets more efficient, they're saying, I can use some of my shelf life in this product now since it will keep better, or I can make it faster instead of saying I'm going to bring milk in from my farms today, process it and deliver it tomorrow.

We try to give those advantages to the customer instead of using it as a processing efficiency. When we automate, we try to do it so there's product improvement or service improvement and not just efficiencies.

How to reach: Turner Dairy Farms Inc., www.turnerdairy.net