Adam Mueller of Minerva Dairy: “Realize that your employees are not you”

Realize that your employees are not you — and they are not your family members. They don’t own the business, and you can’t expect them to care as much or work as hard as you do. There is no perfect employee. Everyone has flaws, including family members. Identifying and working to improve those flaws is what allows […]

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Realize that your employees are not you — and they are not your family members. They don’t own the business, and you can’t expect them to care as much or work as hard as you do. There is no perfect employee. Everyone has flaws, including family members. Identifying and working to improve those flaws is what allows everyone in the business to grow together.

As a part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Mueller.

Adam is living his dairy-farm dream, co-running Minerva Dairy with his equally butter-obsessed sister. As Minerva Dairy’s President, Adam is in charge of innovation and distribution, sharing the dairy’s line of rich, creamy butter with customers nationwide.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Minerva Dairy is America’s oldest family-owned creamery, famous for our legendary 85-percent butterfat, slow-churned butter. After 125 years of operation and five generations of family leadership (and counting), we are proud to be America’s premier butter expert, serving the richest, creamiest, best-tasting butter anywhere. Minerva’s products are GMO-free, antibiotic-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, and free of the synthetic hormone rBST.

My role is crafting butter for the “home chef” and specialized cheese as an ingredient. I wear many hats in my day to day life, and am responsible for the dairy’s long-term vision, and how the business navigates the ever-shifting landscape of regulations and industry consolidation. I’m also prepping the next generation to run Minerva Dairy, between my sister’s family and mine, there are a dozen baby butter makers in the wings, waiting to take their place in the family business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

My most interesting moment — and certainly the most memorable — was when I was churning butter with my son, Orrin. I was explaining science and craft of butter-making, and all the sudden it just clicked for him. I will never forget the look on his face when he really understood the process. That moment stays with me — I can still that look on his face when I close my eyes, as the knowledge that I gained from previous generations was passed on to the sixth generation.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One day when I was 12 years old and unloading milk trucks, the truck drivers started telling me jokes that I did not understand but that everyone else thought were funny. At dinner that night I decided to share some of the jokes I had learned. MOM was not happy with me at all, and Dad had to explain to me why. Looking back, that was a funny lesson learned.

In your opinion, what makes your company stand out?

We don’t really have competitors. There are other companies that make commodity butter, but we are in a league of our own, for so many reasons. We use 85% butterfat butter, which is creamier, flavorsome and slow churned in small batches. For more than 125 years, the company has used farm-fresh milk from pasture-raised cows to turn out a time-tested product. We produce the premium butter that consumers are looking for right now.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Transparency. We are completely transparent about how we make our butter, the premium ingredients, and the process we use. We do it all — nothing is outsourced, nothing hidden. Our milk comes from local, American family-owned farms that pasture raise their cows. All our products are GMO-free, antibiotic-free, gluten-free, vegetarian and free of the synthetic hormone rBST. You can see it on a person’s face, whether they’re a consumer or a distributor, when they hear our story for the first time — they know what they’re getting.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m actively working on creating teaching videos for educational purposes. I believe this will help students at all levels of dairy education really understand the process and science behind creating dairy products.

We’ve actually recently connected with the next generation of entrepreneurs and agricultural leaders through a one-of-a-kind Zoom field trip. We became determined not to let field trip and tour cancellations brought on by the pandemic interrupt our ability as an essential agricultural business to make a positive impact and impression on today’s youth. We had a successful first virtual field trip and plan to continue them in 2021.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? My Mother. Can you share a story about that?

In a family business, your greatest influences naturally come from your family. My mother was fighting cancer while I was in high school. Sadly, her illness and relatively early passing impacted the family deeply on all levels. It also shortened the timetable for her to pass down knowledge, so she taught me how to manage the financial books and track key indicators while I was still in high school. I also learned that there is no separation between work life and home life when you run a family-owned business. It’s just one big, glorious life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Without Minerva Dairy, other small family dairy farms in our community would have no market. Minerva Dairy literally created the market for family-owned dairy farms in our community in Northeast Ohio. Many dairy-farm communities that were known for centuries as small dairy-farm meccas have almost completely disappeared. We’re so fortunate to be able to sustain a way of life that has been lost almost everywhere else.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main parts of our interview. How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?

Family business means family first and business second. The business is only as strong as the commitment to the greater good of the family, which is also the longevity of business. A typical (non-family) business often misses or loses that love and connection that a family pours into their business. Although that love is hard to measure, you know whether or not it’s there. It’s something customers can feel as well.

In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family-owned businesses have?

A generational depth of knowledge is one unique advantage that family-owned businesses have over others. It comes from a lifetime of learning that is built upon another’s lifetime of learning. Nobody is going to care about your business as much as you do, but in a family business you have multiple people that care the same amount. One of the biggest advantages, as cliché as it may sound, is love. At the core of every family-owned business is the glue that keeps it together, love for one another and love for the work you are doing.

What are the unique drawbacks or blind spots that family-owned businesses have?

Being too insular. Outside perspectives are hard to find when the family lacks outside experiences and diversity. Sometimes you need to see things differently or bring in outside help to stir up the environment.

What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?

Older generations can have blinders on when it comes to the competence of the younger generation. Just because you’re part of a family that runs a business doesn’t mean you’re necessarily qualified to run the family business yourself, or even hold certain positions. My recommendation is to consider each person’s unique skill set and place them where they will thrive within the company. That perfect place isn’t necessarily at the top of the org chart.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?

Realize that your employees are not you — and they are not your family members. They don’t own the business, and you can’t expect them to care as much or work as hard as you do. There is no perfect employee. Everyone has flaws, including family members. Identifying and working to improve those flaws is what allows everyone in the business to grow together.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?

I’ve always referenced the “Watermelon Truck Story.” If I got run over by a watermelon truck tomorrow, how would that impact my family? If I am doing my job as a leader, my company won’t miss a beat and may barely even notice that I am gone. (Hopefully some family members would.) It will mean that I achieved my goal, which is business continuity with or without me. The objective is to make sure everyone has the tools and support they need to achieve their goals.

Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

Purpose — A strong purpose inspires a dedicated staff and creates a strong company culture. You see it in the early stories about companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Chobani. Purpose was the biggest driving force. It resulted in customers and employees who believed in a common purpose — the “why” behind the business.

Vision — This is more than a five-year plan (which is essential). It’s about being able to really see the world, your industry, and all of the possible outcomes of your business. Family businesses tend to be more insular than normal businesses — they can easily fall into the trap of doing things just because mom or dad did it that way. You’ve got to continually assess where’s you’re at and where you’re going — and then innovate.

Patience — Family businesses don’t typically grow quickly, although there are exceptions and those tend to make headlines. Slow growth doesn’t mean that the family members are doing something wrong. Be patient, trust in the vision, and execute.

Family Fellowship — Remember you’re a family — at work, home, and play. To be a family business, you need to be a real family. There are plenty of stories about family conflicts that destroyed multi-generational businesses, as well as the families themselves. If members don’t continue to grow as a family, they’re not really a family business, and that will break down eventually.

Continuity Plan — Many family businesses sell or close when one generation passes the torch to the next. This happens in one of two ways: (1) The new generation is financially burdened because of a lack of proper planning (including tax planning) by the older generation; or (2) The older generation takes a “payday” upon retirement that ends the business.

Our secret to five generations of success is based on three key things you need to know to run a family business: (1) You can’t own stock unless you work in the business; (2) If you leave, you forfeit your stock; and (3) The oldest generation annually transfers stock to the younger generation, so upon “retirement” (we never REALLY retire), the older generation has no stock. If one family member is self-centered and stops thinking about purpose, vision, patience, and family fellowship, the business is doomed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Look Good, Feel Good, Be Good. It’s the phrase my father has spoken more than any other. Success starts with having a healthy self-image, which leads to having a positive attitude, which leads to doing well.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder of Chobani — not only because of the Chobani success (the company became the number-one-selling yogurt within just five years) but because of how he believes companies should behave. When he started Chobani, he had the mission of making better food more accessible and making the world a better place for all communities. He has kept true to that vision.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to see the resurgence of the family farm. Many individuals and families dream of running their own family farm, but the cost of entry is too great. The amount of money/debt needed to run a farm is cost-prohibitive for start-ups. I would like to see that change, so more families could make their business dreams come true.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I am very active on LinkedIn — I look forward to hearing about other people’s stories and sharing more of my own. Your readers can follow Minerva Dairy at:

LinkedIn: Facebook: 
Instagram: @minerva_dairy

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