Editor’s Note: Kyle Jensen is Vice President and General Manager of Cheese for Hilmar Cheese Company.
Hilmar Cheese Company, Inc. is a cheese and whey products manufacturer with its headquarters and primary manufacturing site located in Hilmar, California. The company also operates manufacturing locations in Turlock, California and Dalhart, Texas. The privately-owned company has more than 1,000 employees and specializes in the production of Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, Colby, Colby-Jack, flavored Jacks, Mozzarella, Hispanic and Cheddar cheeses.
As of 2014, Hilmar Cheese processes 2.8 million gallons of milk per day, producing more than 2.6 million pounds of cheese per day. The company’s Hilmar, California facility produces more cheese per year from a single site than any other cheese manufacturer in the world.
KJ: You’re very welcome.
TWJ: What can you tell me about Hilmar Cheese? What are the company’s primary activities and focus?
KJ: At Hilmar Cheese, we are celebrating our 30-year anniversary, and in that 30 years, we have grown from a relatively small, regional cheese manufacturer to a leading national/international cheese, protein, lactose, and soon-to-be milk powder manufacturer. We’ve been successful by focusing on strong relationships with our milk producers, suppliers, customers, and the communities where we operate. Our recipe is simple: we make products that customers want.
TWJ: Tell me about your role with Hilmar Cheese. What do you do on a day-to-day basis? How has your role evolved over the years?
KJ: My career with Hilmar Cheese started as a cheese production supervisor 18 years ago, after graduating from Cal Poly in 1995. Getting in on the ground floor gave me a firm foundation and understanding of our processes and what it takes to consistently make quality cheese to customer specifications 24/7, 365 days a year. Later, Hilmar created a Cheese Technical Department, and I was responsible for leading this group. I now serve as Vice President and General Manager of Cheese, where I’m afforded the opportunity to lead Hilmar as part of the steering team. My day-to-day responsibilities have shifted from a highly-technical, cheese-making focus to a higher-level, global market and company-positioning emphasis.
TWJ: Do you enjoy the dairy industry? How would you describe it to people unfamiliar with dairy processing?
KJ: I do. When I look at the role dairy is playing in the lives of people, it is incredible. Whether it is whey proteins for nutrition (not just body builders anymore), infant health, or dedicate desserts, milk and its products are in high demand.
TWJ: Many students I speak with have never considered the dairy industry. What would you say to them?
KJ: I would say they need to reconsider. The dairy industry has something for everyone. Dairy offers opportunities in state-of-the-art technology, research and development, high-speed process management, risk management, marketing, and even legal and policy – just to name a few. And if international business sounds exciting, we have that, too.
TWJ: Many people think of the dairy industry as old-fashioned. Today’s students often favor what they perceive as more “modern” industries, like technology or medical research or finance. How would you respond to them?
KJ: At Hilmar, most “modern” technologies are in use every day. For example, every day, we use advanced milk fractioning equipment to extrapolate incredibly small fractions of milk for key ingredients in infant health products. We are involved with university researchers to better understand the huge medical potential in milk fractions.
TWJ: What does it take to be successful in the industry? What traits or behaviors do you see in industry leaders?
KJ: Integrity, investing in people, and building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships are a must. This industry is global, and the volatility of the marketplace can be brutal. Invest in good people and provide them with the tools they need to exceed expectations.
TWJ: What does leadership mean to you?
KJ: Leadership means serving others for the greater good. It’s not about keeping yourself on top; it’s about growing each other along the way. If I can motivate people to do more than they ever thought they could, and through their efforts, build upon Hilmar’s success, than I’ve accomplished something important.
KJ: I’m excited about the future of dairy. We continue to look to the global marketplace for growth opportunities, all the while staying focused on the largest cheese market in the world: the USA. As developing countries’ incomes increase, so do their appetites for better nutrition. Dairy products are ideal sources of protein and essential vitamins and minerals, such as calcium.
TWJ: I hear a lot of talk about “increasing global demand” for dairy products. I’ve seen predictions of steady growth in the U.S. dairy industry for years to come. Is it really that strong and stable? What do you see happening for U.S. companies?
KJ: The U.S. is well-positioned to take advantage of the very real increasing global demand. We have a high-quality, year-around milk supply, the world’s standard for food safety, and the infrastructure necessary to efficiently move product all over the world. I see U.S. companies building upon these advantages with innovative products and packaging to give the market what it wants.
TWJ: Your company has come to our campus and offered internships to several of our students. What excites you about our program and our MPS students?
KJ: I was a student at Cal Poly 20 years ago, I understand the potential of this program and how it can be leveraged to be impactful to industry and a successful career.
TWJ: How is the MPS program different from other grad programs that Hilmar recruits from?
KJ: The MPS program has the ability for rapid assimilation for a student into the dairy industry with a focus on those key things to make a successful leader.
TWJ: What kind of reputation does Cal Poly have in the industry?
KJ: Cal Poly has a strong reputation across many disciplines. A Cal Poly degree carries weight on your resume because those that have graduated before you have been leaders in our industry.
TWJ: Should a student choose to join the MPS program, what might his or her career look like with Hilmar?
KJ: Ideally, I would recommend spending the first portion of their career leading production teams, and with success, the ability to take on increasing levels of responsibility. At Hilmar, it is important to demonstrate success in leading teams. We will give you broadening experiences and increasing levels of responsibility.
TWJ: Can you describe what our students might do in a Hilmar internship?
KJ: A Hilmar Internship will be project-focused with the ability to present to our leadership team at the end of the summer. This gives students an amazing opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and share their learnings within the company.
TWJ: What can you tell me about MPS graduate Nauman Hayat’s role with Hilmar?
KJ: Nauman has hit the ground running. Nauman is a key member of our technical team; he takes knowledge of our customers’ expectations from our products and works with our operations team to execute those recipes.
TWJ: Can you give me your best sales pitch? Why should a bright, talented student with multiple options enroll in the MPS program and set their sights on building a career in the dairy processing industry?
KJ: As you move through your career, you will need things to differentiate you from your competition for a position within your company or outside of your company. Having a Masters degree not only gives you an edge; an MPS degree gives you tools to solve your company’s problems and become invaluable to your employer.
TWJ: Thanks for your time, Kyle.
KJ: You’re very welcome.
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