Industry Perspective: Hilmar’s Kyle Jensen Talks Cheese, Technology, and Leadership

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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.

hilmar logoTWJ: Thanks for spending time with me today.

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.

hilmar-cheese-companyTWJ: What is in the future for dairy and agriculture?

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.

Stay tuned for important program updates by visiting the MPS blog at:

Tom Photo 2015
Tom Johnson. Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell


Meet MPS Student Vania White

Vania White Photo
MPS student Vania White

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Vania White is a long way from home. This fall, after earning her degree in Culinology from Mississippi State University, she traveled to San Luis Obispo to join Cal Poly’s MPS in Dairy Products Technology program. She’s now two months into her year-long journey.

Taking food seriously is nothing new to White. She grew up in Madison, Mississippi, in a tight-knit family that recognized the importance of food in holding a family together.

“As a kid, my mom, my aunts, the whole group was all very family-oriented,” White says. “We always had big family dinners – not just on holidays, but all the time – just to get the family together. Growing up, I always associated food with a sense of family. Food made it a family atmosphere.”

As a high school student, White was active in band, played basketball, and ran track. She also enjoyed cooking.

“I felt a strong connection with cooking,” says White. “I wanted to study that in college, but at the time, Mississippi State didn’t have a Culinology program. I began in Food Science, but then the university started a new program that combined Culinary Arts and Food Science. I knew I had found my place.”

During her senior year, White was required to complete an internship to satisfy graduation requirements for the culinary side of her major. Instead of applying for a restaurant internship, where she would have been paired with a chef, she interviewed to intern at the university dairy. She did it, she says, just to try something different. She got the internship.

“I started with fluid milk,” White says. “The guy would arrive at 2 am, and I would arrive at 4 am. We would receive the raw milk, separate it, homogenize it, and have it ready for the cheesemaker when he arrived at 6 am. We would make cheddar, edam, or whatever. I also got to help make fluid milk, chocolate milk, and buttermilk.”

It was during her internship that White learned about Cal Poly’s MPS in Dairy Products Technology program.

“When I first received the email, I was at work,” says White. “At the time, I didn’t know whether I wanted to pursue a masters degree or get a job. The email helped me see that I could get a degree in only a year. This opened up some possibilities I hadn’t considered. Not only could I get a degree in a year, I would have better job opportunities in the long run.”

White’s initial excitement, however, was driven by something else she read in the program flyer.

“I have to be truthful,” she says with a laugh. “The money excited me. The flyer said I could potentially make $65,000-75,000 per year after completing the program. I would not have made that much coming out of college in Mississippi!”

Vania White studies samples under a microscope during Dairy Microbiology lab.

As White nears the end of her first quarter of classes, she says she has been able to find a balance between school and her outside life.

“I work out at the university gym every day – it’s a great place! I love how close to the beach we are, how close we are to good people, good food, good music. I love the farmer’s market – it’s amazing! San Luis Obispo is a community where everyone comes together, regardless of race or background– it’s diverse. You can have fun with everybody without feeling out of place.

“But school is why we’re here. I am excited to be in a Learn By Doing environment,” she says. “As an undergrad, everything was theoretical. I like learning in a more hands-on environment, and I’m excited to be in a program that allows you to do that. My classes are amazing. Even though I don’t have a strong science background, the professors teach in a way that is simple. The classes are challenging, but not so challenging that you don’t know what’s going on.”

White emphasizes that MPS students don’t need an extensive background in any of the subjects taught, as long as they have a basic foundation.

“As long as you have a little bit of knowledge,”she says, “the teachers elaborate and are willing to help you. Yes, you’re going to need at least some experience in the sciences – biology and chemistry – but dairy? You really don’t need it, because the program teaches you about that.”

Among her fall courses, White has taken a particular liking to her leadership seminar.

“Leadership is my favorite, because we get to learn things about ourselves. Now that we’re going into industry, we need to know our qualities, our traits, our strengths and weaknesses, in order to better deal with people, and so they can deal with us. It helps us learn to relate to others.”

As part of the Leadership seminar, MPS students were recently required take the MBTI personality test, also known as Myers-Briggs. The test is an introspective self-report questionnaire designed to indicate psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.

“Through my test results, I am able to assess where I need help with my leadership,” White says. “I am a very social person – that part of the test confirms that I can talk with people fine – but my vision of what is going to happen – I scored lower on that part of the test. Knowing this is going to help me develop better vision, and I’ll be better able to relate that vision to my employees, so we can move together toward a common goal.”

White has also enjoyed taking field trips to dairy processing plants each Friday. Over the past two months, the class has visited several facilities, including Leprino Foods, Land O Lakes, Safeway, Hilmar, and others.

“The field trips are pretty awesome,” says White. “It’s great to see how industry operates day to day. It’s not necessarily how we thought it would be. It’s not an 8 to 5 kind of place. The dairy industry is a 24-hour job. It’s also pretty cool to see how these plants are run. The amount of milk that is processed per day surprised me – I came from a smaller dairy plant that would only process 20,000 gallons per day. They’re doing a million gallons a day. That’s ridiculous – it’s eye-opening to see just how big a scale this is at.”

Through a combination of plant exposure and classroom activities, White is beginning to see a place for herself in the industry. Thinking about going from an hourly job to supervising others excites her.

“When I go on these field trips, I see that one day, I will be able to supervise or manage in different parts of the plant. It seems really cool, getting to produce a product that brings happiness to customers, but also developing relationships with employees. Being able to join this new family, and getting to produce products with my new family, that makes me very happy.”

Next year, White hopes to be in a managerial or supervisory position. Within five years, she hopes to have the opportunity to travel the world, working as a leader in the dairy industry.

“Dairy is an interesting field, says White. “If you’re willing to put in the time and the work, whatever you’re trying to get out of program and the industry can be accomplished. I would say to students considering the program, ‘take a chance and don’t be scared.’ If you’re scared, use that as your motivation, because in the end, this program will not only make you a better leader, it will make you better prepared for job opportunities in the dairy industry. Come and enjoy life for a year in California, enjoy the weather, because afterward, the real world begins!”

White still finds time to cook, when she can squeeze it in between classes and labs. Her favorite dish?

“Chicken on the stick,” she laughs.”It’s a combination of chicken, potatoes, onions, pickles, and jalapenos, if I’m feeling it. You put it all on a skewer, and the whole thing is double-battered and deep fried!”

(Editor’s note: sounds delicious. We’re still waiting for a taste.)

Stay tuned for important program updates by visiting the MPS blog at:

Tom Photo 2015
Tom Johnson. Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell


Checking In with MPS Graduate Anthony Dulaney

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Anthony Dulaney graduated from Cal Poly’s MPS in Dairy Products Technology program in September 2015.

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Editor’s Note: Anthony Dulaney graduated from Oregon State University in 2014 with a double degree in Food Science and Technology/Fermentation Science and Innovation Management. He arrived on the Cal Poly campus in Fall 2014 and earned his MPS degree in September 2015.

TWJ: Hi, Anthony. How’s life in the working world?

AD: Life in the working world is good!  But I have to tell you – the biggest challenge I face – that young people face – is that we’re not prepared to screw up as much as we end up doing. But the people at work understand, and it’s just the way things are. It’s expected. As long as you take it in stride and accept that that’s how it works, its fine.

TWJ: You’ve been out of school for a few months now. Are you adjusting okay?

AD: I’m adjusting fairly well. One of the biggest pains is – how should I say this? I went to high school, and then to college, and then to graduate school, and my time was always filled up with things that needed to be done. In college, when you have time off, you still have homework. There is always something to do. One of the big challenges now is, how do I spend time productively when I have a day off?  There’s still something to do, but it’s just not at the same level.

TWJ: Don’t you ever just relax?

AD: Have you met me?

 TWJ: Tell me a bit about what you’re doing now. What is your job title? Where do you work?

AD: I’m a production supervisor for Land O Lakes. The facility is located in Orland, California, about 30 miles west of Chico. I start my day with “shift huddles” with the people on my team to discuss what’s going on that day – how much cheese we’re making, what are the maintenance issues in the plant, etc. Then I try to enable the people I supervise to get their work done, to help them engage in how the equipment should run. For example, if I see that the moisture is running high in the cheese, I ask them, “what do you think needs to be done?”

The administrative stuff I do will include meetings about human resources issues, the direction we’re going to go in the plant, production schedules. We talk about various issues that come up. I act as one of the middle men between production employees and upper management.

TWJ: What are your impressions of the industry?

AD: I really like the industry. There is volatility in California in the cheese market. Land O Lakes as a whole – they’re trying to make everything work right now. I really appreciate that. The industry is a great place to cut your teeth, and it has opened a lot of doors for me.

TWJ: How did the MPS program serve you? Do you feel adequately prepared for the work you are doing?

AD: Yes. I think the technical skills I learned, and the technical background, those things deserve an A-plus. The aura when it came to management and leadership was great. However, there is an administrative/management aspect that the MPS program could delve deeper into. For instance, balancing a production schedule, employee scheduling, how to navigate union contracts…if I had learned how to do those things before, I might be able to give better feedback now on plant issues. (Editor’s note: thanks, Anthony – we’ll take this up at the next curriculum review meeting)

 TWJ: What courses or experiences have been the most helpful in preparing you for your job?

AD: Dairy Processing was definitely one of the most helpful classes I took. That was invaluable. Because of my training in the MPS program, at Land O Lakes I have taken over training on the pasteurizer 100 percent.

I think one of the best experiences I had outside of the program was pushing myself as an undergrad. I took too many classes, which taught me how to juggle things. In a production environment, you’re always juggling things.

TWJ: What are some of the challenges you face at work?

AD: Being somebody who has gone through all of this schooling – my operators are still smarter than me. Yes, I know the technical side, the chemistry, the theory behind processing, but they have tricks that I haven’t even thought of.

mps group
Anthony Dulaney (middle) with MPS students Wanshu Li, Kelsey Mock, Haley Imhof, Kim Do, Sandra Shi, Mailyne Nguyen, David Einheber, and Anthony Cervania.

TWJ: How did you decide to pursue a career in the dairy industry?

AD: When I was three or four years old, my dad asked me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I looked up at him with big eyes and said, “I want to be the ice cream man!” It became a family joke.

In high school, I ended up taking a culinary class. I was a slacker in high school, but I liked food – and hearing about food kind of got me excited. I decided that I should probably go to college, and thought, when I get there, I will study food – food science, food chemistry, food technology.

At one point, I needed an elective, and I learned about a course in cheesemaking. I liked the teacher, so I thought I would dip my toe in. I took the course and said to myself, “holy crap!” I kept talking to the professor and let her know I wanted to get into dairy. She told me about the MPS Program. I knew I didn’t want to go into Quality or R&D. I wanted to be Continue reading “Checking In with MPS Graduate Anthony Dulaney”