Land O'Lakes said Thursday that it is promoting Beth Ford to become its new chief executive, moving up from a chief operating role overseeing its three largest businesses.
Ford, who joined Land O'Lakes in January 2012, will formally take the top job at the Arden Hills-based farmer-owned cooperative on Wednesday. She will be the first female chief executive in the $14 billion company's history and one of only 25 female chief executives at a Fortune 500 firm.
In an interview, Ford said her predecessor, Chris Policinski, left the company in good shape — both financially and strategically — by focusing on innovation and broadening the focus of the cooperative far beyond dairy products.
"We're not necessarily going to pivot from that because that has shown success," Ford said. "It's really going to be a deepening and acceleration."
Land O'Lakes is not a publicly traded company, instead it is owned by 3,963 farmers and agricultural retail cooperatives in the U.S. Ford will answer to a 28-member board of farmers.
The company has evolved in recent years so that food such as butter in the dairy aisle at the grocery store — its best-known product — is not its largest nor its fastest-growing division.
Land O'Lakes' seed, chemical, consulting and ag technology division, called WinField United, posted sales of $5.7 billion and a profit of $230 million in 2017. The animal feed business posted sales of $3.7 billion and a profit of $92 million. Both divisions grew by double digits last year.
The dairy foods business, however, which includes Land O'Lakes branded butter and milk powder sold internationally, posted sales of $3.9 billion and a profit of $71 million last year, up only slightly from 2016. While the dairy food business is growing slower than the other divisions, Ford said the company's "farm-to-fork" reach is an important advantage in the marketplace.
"With the desire for the consumer to really understand where their food comes from," she said, "we can leverage our entire platform because we see across it."
Innovation will be critical in the packaged-food business, she said, because merchants want new products that will drive traffic to stores. The company launched a squeezable butter spread this summer.
Part of the reason the food business didn't show strong growth in 2017 was the weakness of the market for milk powder. For every pound of butter the company produces, it produces another two pounds of milk powder, Ford said. Prices for that commodity have been volatile, a problem only worsened by disruptions in trade since President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese imports.
Before her promotion to her current chief operating officer position, Ford was head of the dairy food and Purina Animal Nutrition businesses. She was instrumental, the company said, in Land O'Lakes' 2017 acquisition of Vermont Creamery.
Ford replaces Policinski, who took over the company in 2005, guided it through the Great Recession and helped double its size. Policinski stepped down suddenly in June without explanation. Peter Janzen, the company's general counsel who had been planning to retire in July, was named interim CEO. Janzen will stay on for a period of transition, the company said.
Ford's appointment is not a huge surprise.
"There were ongoing discussions over the last number of years about the potential, and I thought Chris and the board provided me many opportunities to expand my experience, and with that positioned me well as a logical successor," Ford said.
Ford said that while she now largely works in agriculture, a traditionally male-dominated field, she has not found that to be a challenge at Land O'Lakes and has enjoyed excellent partnerships with the cooperative's board of directors.
"There's a perception that some of these industries, they're only male-dominated and they're not welcoming necessarily, and I think in the end what they're expecting is performance, and am I aligned with them from a strategic perspective, and can I drive the business," Ford said. "That would be whether I'm a man or a woman."
Ford joined Land O'Lakes early in 2012 from International Flavors and Fragrances, where she helped streamline the company's global-manufacturing infrastructure and built new factories in India, China and Singapore. Before that, she held several management jobs in supply chain and operations with Mobil Corp., PepsiCo and Pepsi Bottling Co., Hachette Book Group and Scholastic Inc.
Ford was born in Sioux City, Iowa. Her father was a truck driver and her mother was a nurse, therapist and minister. She earned her bachelor's degree from Iowa State University and a master's from Columbia University Business School.
She and her spouse, Jill Schurtz, have three teenage children and live in Minneapolis.