ROSEMONT, Ill. — Barbara O’Brien is going on a listening tour in her new role as the CEO and president of Dairy Management Inc.
“It started on my first day. Any farmer or industry leader who reached out to me, I said, ‘I want to hear your thoughts,’” said O’Brien, who is also the CEO and president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. “I said, ‘I want to hear your pain points and I want to understand what’s working and what’s not working.’”
During the next three to four months, O’Brien said, she plans to take advantage of attending a lot of meetings.
“I’m going to meet a lot of new farmers,” she said. “Their voice matters and they need to own the program now and going forward.”
A farmer transition team led the effort to select O’Brien to lead DMI.
“We know Barb has the vision and insight to be able to lead the checkoff further,” said Marilyn Hershey, chair of DMI and a dairy farmer near Cochranville, Pennsylvania.
O’Brien is not new to DMI.
“The opportunity to come to Dairy occurred in 2000 when I came in as a consultant and I never left,” she said.
At DMI, O’Brien has been involved with school marketing, long-term planning and new business opportunities.
“I came to all of these areas with a fresh set of eyes encouraging the staff to look at the business differently to insure dairy’s relevance in the long run,” she said.
Although O’Brien is not a farmer or from a farming community, she relates to the work ethic and humility of farmers.
“I grew up in that kind of family — it’s who I’m going to be as a leader,” O’Brien said.
“We consider ourselves stewards as a staff and we’re stewards of the investment dairy farmers make in this program,” she said. “We are also stewards of what’s been built before us, the strategies and programs, and we come in respecting that work.”
The board’s support for O’Brien as the new CEO is not only a vote of confidence for her, but also a vote for strategic continuity.
“Continuity doesn’t mean complacency,” she said. “We need to continue to examine what we do and change where we need to change.”
The environment is complex, O’Brien said.
“We’re increasingly reliant on the global marketplace for new volume, so we need to bring new solutions and make hard choices to make sure we are efficiently investing the farmers’ dollars,” she said.
O’Brien has set some initial recommendations for DMI.
“We need to look at the checkoff companies and make sure there’s stronger integration so the right work is happening in the right companies and we’re not duplicating in any way,” she said. “Each organization has its own mission and I believe our real power is in working together on those priorities that can benefit farmers.”
The CEO plans to develop transparent communication with farmers to help them see, understand and give feedback to DMI about important jobs that need to be completed to increase demand and sales in the United States and around the world.
“I believe there are efficiencies we can drive by working more closely together that maximize our working dollars and the return on every dollar that farmers put into this program,” O’Brien said.
“I’m going to review our operation’s expenditures to insure we go into next year and the future with an eye to greater synergy as we work as a collection of checkoff families,” she said. “We’re going to evaluate priorities with farmer and industry input.”
DMI plan is about winning the next generation of consumers.
“We know how important Gen Z consumers are because they have $100 billion in spending power and they’re digital savvy,” O’Brien said.
For the past 10 to 12 years, O’Brien said, DMI has been working with food service companies that are interested in new menu development and new product opportunities.
“We created a great combination of collaborative dollars for a common goal with our current partners — McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Dominos,” she said. “That partnership strategy will continue and you’ll see a broadening of those partnerships beyond menu development and innovation.”
DMI will focus more of its work on e-commerce.
“We have strong relationships in traditional retail, but e-commerce is winning the day,” O’Brien said.
“We need to continue to look at milk and milk-based products that meet consumers changing lifestyles,” she said. “There has been $1 billion worth of new investment in fluid milk infrastructure for fresh plants and long shelf life plants so we have capabilities for at home and away from home innovations.”
“It is a privilege to be CEO,” O’Brien said. “It’s an important responsibility we take on as female leaders.”
“I hope I’m voted in not because I’m a woman, but because the board members see the leadership that I can add,” said Hershey, who is the first female chair at DMI. “I’m honored to be here and I’ve had discussions with young women who feel like they have more opportunities because of the roles Barb and I have stepped into.”
“Barb was not tapped to be the CEO because she is a woman,” Hershey stressed. “She is CEO because of her skill set and she just happens to be a woman.”
For more information about DMI, go to www.usdairy.com.