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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

A Corporate Innovator Stresses Company Culture

by Shel Horowitz

Why do people choose to work at small family businesses instead of huge mega-corporations? Often, it's because family companies are more successful at creating a culture that feels welcoming to its employees: one that builds a true team spirit where there are other goals along with a healthy bottom line.

Barbara Gannon, vice president of Corporate and Marketing Communications at Sargento Foods, Inc., has been with the Plymouth, Wisconsin cheese marketer for 14 years. It's the kind of company where 26 men, including the company chairman shaved their heads in solidarity with an employee who was facing radiation treatment for cancer - and raised over $11,500 for the family's medical expenses. Where a 640-pound block of cheese was carved into a sculpture of a football player in support of the nearby Green Bay Packers. and where the company gives paid time off to employees as they volunteer to build (so far) twelve houses for Habitat for Humanity.

And unlike some of those large corporations, Sargento not only discourages employees from working every waking hour, but fully expects " that you'll put God and family before work." Gannon came to the Family Business Center for the March 4 gathering at the Log Cabin.

Leonard Gentine had had a checkered career: funeral director, mink farmer, operating a custard stand (complete with waitresses on roller skates). He got into cheese when he was asked if he knew anyone who could put together cheese gift boxes. Even though Plymouth was the cheesemaking capital of the US, no one would do it. So he cleaned out a carriage house and set to work. That year, 1949, he sold 5000 cheese gift boxes. By 1953, as he noticed increased demand for traditional Italian cheeses in his gift boxes, he and his partner, Joseph Sartori, set up their own cheese packaging and marketing; he later bought Sartori out.

The company takes some pride in being innovative - starting with the company name, which was a composite of the two founding families' names (the o at the end was tacked on to sound Italian) - and the idea that a U.S. cheese company in the Midwest could succeed with Italian-style cheeses. It was the first to use vacuum packing for cheese, and the first to sell cheese already shredded (at first using a converted pasta maker). Even innovators make mistakes, though. Leonard had turned down the idea of selling burgers to people in their cars. And the company went ahead with a few failed products, such as chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick.

But it also takes pride in creating a culture of fun-loving people with a high moral code and a great deal of trust for each other. Interestingly enough, the company's strong ethical foundation has helped fuel substantial growth. Since Gannon has been with the firm, it has doubled the number of employees.

When Leonard Gentine died in 1996, his sons and Gannon created a process to involve all employees - as stakeholders - in identifying what makes the company special, continuing a long term commitment to "clear away the ka-ka." Out of an original list of 40 items, the company narrowed it down to 20 - still somewhat unwieldy, she admits. The principles fall into three general headings: People: Ethics, trust, balance in life, employee equality, creativity, humor and fun, and accountability.

Pride: Excellence, effective communication, mutual support, sense of ownership, recognition, community outreach, and fair compensation.

Progress: Career and personal development, customer focus, innovation, risk-taking, profitability and growth, and enlightened leadership.

The company goes into quite a bit of detail regarding these 20 principles in a 50-page booklet entitled "Sargento: Our Corporate Culture." Every attender received one. If you weren't there, Ira can probably get you one.

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