Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, based in the heart of Wisconsin’s Dairyland, has earned the town of Ellsworth the enviable designation of “Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin.” Known for its award-winning cheese curds and small-batch artisan cheeses, the co-op operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
CEO Paul Bauer credits the 300+ dairy farmers that make up the Cooperative for its growth and success. “These farm families are more than just the producers of our milk, they’re the owners of our organization. They have a deep and profound interest in producing products of the highest quality and ensuring our success. That’s a good thing for our customers,” he explained.
The cooperative runs three production facilities in Wisconsin: the Ellsworth facility, which specializes solely in the production of the co-op’s world-famous All Natural White Cheddar Cheese Curds (both natural and flavored), All Natural Cheddar Cheese Curd Crumbles and sweet whey powder; the Comstock production facility, which manufactures more than 80 varieties of small-batch artisan cheeses; and the New London Wohlt facility, the newest addition to the Ellsworth family, which produces custom-processed cheese.
While Ellsworth’s history as a creamery dates back to the early 1900s, Bremer’s relationship with the co-op began just three years ago. Bauer believes that selecting the ideal banking partner is dependent on being able to answer “yes” to three key questions: 1) Is the bank willing to learn your business? 2) Can you meet the bank’s service team, so you know who you will work with on a day-to-day basis? 3) Does the bank share your organization’s values?
“We transitioned out of a 100-year banking relationship when we selected Bremer,” Bauer shared. “They submitted a very aggressive proposal, and the entire support team has been awesome to deal with and highly responsive.”
Bauer appreciates having an elected board of directors – all dairy farmers - who challenge him to push the envelope on the cheese business. With a primary goal of generating wealth for the farmer patrons, Bauer and his team are working to give the cooperative a stronger financial footing requiring less dependence on commodity pricing. “Our long-term goal is to get more than 40 percent of sales as value-added products. We’re at about 45 percent for 2019,” Bauer said.
Customers and business partners often contribute valuable ideas for new products. For example, the co-op’s popular Cheese Curd Crumbles, used in poutine, sausage and pizza recipes, stemmed from a customer’s idea to use the leftover “crumbles” in his homemade sausage. The co-op’s stores serve as valuable testing grounds for gauging consumer reaction to new products.
Another avenue helping the co-op gain valuable customer input is its Ambassador Program. For a fee of $49, Ambassadors (who must be at least 18 years of age) simply taste and give feedback on new cheeses, and then chronicle their Ellsworth Creamery Ambassador Program journey via social media.
A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate and former Kraft manager, Bauer has managed significant change since becoming CEO in 2008. At that time, the Creamery had a single computer, and orders were written by hand. Today, the creamery has more than 100 computers and processes 40 invoices per day compared to 12 a week in 2008. And the employee base has grown from 55 to 275 as a result of the growth and diversification of the co-op’s cheese products.
Bauer’s advice to new CEOs is simple in theory – but demanding in practice. “Honor the past, move slowly to make change, and be consistent in your messaging about where you are going as an organization,” he suggests.
The Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery will celebrate its 110th anniversary in 2020, and Bauer is enthusiastic about future growth. The company takes the long view, thinking in terms of decades, instead of three to five years out. “We have an excellent reputation in the United States and among our international distributors for the quality of our food products,” he said. “We are definitely here for the next generation.”