October 19, 2016

Riverview Dairy: A Culture of Opportunity [VIDEO]

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

In many ways, Riverview Dairy is like any other large dairy. Driving up to the home office in Morris, Minnesota, you’re greeted by all the familiar sites of a dairy farm: an office, silage pit, grain storage and a barn full of cows. Every day, cows get milked and fed and cared for just like any other dairy. Even the size of the Riverview Dairy enterprise—while mammoth at 65,000 lactating cows spread on 10 sites across four states—isn’t what sets it apart.

It’s how they do it: With a drive for excellence and an unwavering commitment to company culture.

Dairy Facts

The evolution from a farm with a beef and cropping operation and zero dairy cows in the early 1990s to one of the largest dairy operations in the world today started with a process familiar to many dairy producers: succession planning.  Several members of the next generation of the Fehr family wanted to return to the family farming business in the 1990s, but the business couldn’t sustain them all. So, Gary Fehr and his dad, Lloyd, set out to diversify their farm.

“Really, it was about livestock,” says Brad Fehr, CFO of Riverview Farms, Gary’s brother and Lloyd’s son. After considering poultry, swine and dairy, Brad Fehr says Gary and Lloyd saw the most opportunity in the dairy business.  In September 1995, they milked their first cow on an 8,000-cow dairy in Morris.

“There was no master plan [for growth],” Brad Fehr says. “We grew as opportunity presented itself.”

From those early beginnings until today, the three pillars of Riverview Farms LLP have remained the same: beef, dairy and cropping. Integration of those businesses has been key to building their operation over the years to where it is today: 850 employees and livestock on 20 sites in 10 states from Minnesota to Arizona.

The Culture They Keep
Riverview built a corporate culture around which everything pivots today. The company motto, “Providing a culture of opportunity for passionate people and innovative ideas,” sums up what makes Riverview different. They key in on company culture in a way common among Fortune 500 companies, but, so far at least, uncommon among dairy farms.

“The culture goes back to the example that grandpa set,” Brad Fehr says. “Our culture is crucial.”

Culture is difficult to define but critical to success for most any business, dairying or not. “The company culture defines what kind of company you’re running, what kind of work place you’re creating and what kind of output you can produce,” says Pat Doody, one of the founders of West Coast advertising and branding firm WongDoody. He says a good company culture is a competitive advantage and it’s up to the leader of the business to define that culture.  

While most people think of things like free coffee as part of company culture, things like that are actually employment perks, Doody says. Culture is behavior.

“Your culture is the CEO figuring out, defining and proclaiming, ‘This is how I want us to behave as an organization,’” he says. “Core values become behavior, so it’s up to the CEO to determine what those five to 8 values are.”

You instill those values in employees via training and emplowerment. At Riverview, the employee handbook is actually a poster, posted in offices and breakrooms.

There’s a reason why the team at Riverview says their culture has made all the difference in the success of their business. According to Doody, when you have a good culture, you create an environment where people want to work and then they behave better and are more productive.

Riverview’s core values of integrity, candor, simplicity, humility and work ethic have been critical to their growth and is critical to their continued success. “We talk about it a lot,” Brad Fehr says. “We can’t have cultural drift.”

 “It is fun being around a bunch of people that are excited about what they are doing,” he says. One factor that may impact that excitement and passion is the average age of the Riverview staff is 33.5 years old and thier leadership team, 33.7 years old.  

Employees Are At The Center
A core element of the Riverview culture is centered on employee development. According to Kevin Wulf, who leads human resources at the dairy, employee development is critical to everybody’s success in the business.

“If we don’t let people keep growing, we get stagnant,” he says. “All of us desire to learn more, all of us desire to get better personally and professionally. The more tools we can give to our employees, whether leadership or management, the better employees they will be.”

Developing your employees is imperative to the success of your business, according to Bob Milligan of Dairy Strategies and professor emeritus at Cornell University.

“Sixty years ago, the secret to success on the farm was hard work. Now, in the 21st century, it’s leadership and developing people,” he says.

Riverview’s staff encompasses a wide swath of nationalities and bridging the communications barrier is an important part of the process and a core principle of the business. More than eight years ago Robert Frischmon started working for Riverview teaching English to native Spanish-speaking workers and Spanish to the native English speakers. He says the start was slow, but today the program, focusing on language specifically involved in dairying, is booming. Employees throughout the company have the opportunity to take the classes on their days off. They can be reimbursed for their time, as well.

“We’re trying to bridge the gaps between cultures so that people are able to talk directly to each other,” Frischmon says. “When we first started, it was nice just to say hello in Spanish. Now we are able to have direct conversations, giving [Hispanic employees] direction and advice in their own language.”

This has been huge for building connections among employees, says Wulf, whose own Spanish skills have grown into fluency over the years. Learning another language gives Riverview employees the chance to add a skill to their resume that often leads to more responsibility and compensation. “If you can directly communicate with other employees, you are more valuable to the team,” Frischmon says.

Farmers across the country can offer a similar opportunity to their employees through courses at community colleges and other organizations.

Utilizing Immigration Programs
One of the reasons language classes have been so critical to Riverview’s success is their use of Hispanic labor, which comprises about 80% of their staff.  Riverview uses a Visa program that is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement called a TN (Trade NAFTA) Visa, which gives professionals in Canada and Mexico the opportunity to work in the United States for two years, after which they can pursue a green card or return to their home countries. At Riverview, these professionals are usually people who are going into veterinary practice and are excellent for herdsman and cowside positions. A majority of them live in onsite housing.

“The professionals bring obviously an elevated level of experience,” Wulf says. “They are cattle people; that’s why they are going into veterinary practice. They desire to put their best foot forward because they realize this will impact their careers down the road, here or in Mexico.”

At any given time, 300 TN Visa employees are on staff, or about one-third of Riverview’s roster. Riverview has a full-time recruiter in Mexico in charge of getting the workers to the States and back home to Mexico. It’s very important that the opportunity is a good fit for the employee and that the employee is a good fit for the farm.

“We promise to bring them [to the U.S.] and to make sure they get home,” Wulf says.

A Unique Ownership Structure
The commitment to employees translates to ownership of the company. Today, Riverview is 70% owned by employees and 30% owned by neighbor-investors, a shareholder group that numbers 300 in total. Anyone who has worked at Riverview for one year can buy into the partnership. “I think it’s been huge for attracting and retaining employees,” Brad Fehr says. It’s also key for maintaining their low-cost structure. Fehr says employees having a piece of ownership really pays off in market downturns because they are protecting their own investments too.

In 1995, “dad and Gary decided they wanted to include some outside investors,” explains Brad Fehr. “They were people they knew: neighbors to the site, people dad had always done business with. Honestly, a lot of them were related.” He says in the early days, outside investors served as a sounding board for advice when needed. They continued this structure with their second dairy, built in 2000, but this time, they didn’t have a personal connection with the new shareholders. “[Local dairy farmers] Tom Walsh and Mike Yost, guys we did not know, approached us with a permit and were looking for investors and help managing a dairy site,” Brad Fehr says. “Again, it was all local people who had a similar vision.”

The buy-in of employees is no more important than the buy-in of neighbor-shareholders. The No. 1 job of a Riverview neighbor-owner is to be an advocate for the business, especially when it comes to answering questions from local people about new farms as they are being built. It’s not uncommon for large dairies to spook communities during the building process, and Riverview has had its share of controversy as it has expanded over the years. So, neighbor-shareholders help to create positive conversations about Riverview’s benefits to the communities in which its sites are located.

“It’s very important that the community understands what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Wulf says. “We like to accommodate whoever wants to come through here [on a tour].”

 All in This Together
 “We want to be good neighbors,” Wulf says. “We hope that [community members] say Riverview helps this community and that it’s an asset here.”

Last year, Riverview hired former local agriculture teacher Natasha Mortenson to do just that. As the full-time community relations lead at Riverview, her sole job is to impact the community in a positive way, whether through school tours, local events or coordinating employee-volunteer efforts. “We often send groups to work at the local food bank,” she says.

Riverview’s agriculture advocacy doesn’t stop there. Each year, Riverview selects six high school students from different parts of Minnesota. The Riverview Scholars program awards college scholarships after training and one year of service, advocating for agriculture. Riverview donated more than $40,000 to a variety of scholarship funds last year alone.

It’s reflective of Riverview’s culture commitment. “We want to be good stewards of what we have, and share what God has blessed us with,” Wulf says. “[We share] with the community because we want and need their support.”