Orrville: When Nate Schmid was a few weeks old, his mother brought the baby into the Smith Dairy Products Co. headquarters to meet the staff of the family-owned dairy.
A few employees proclaimed “there’s the next Smith Dairy president,” recalled Steve Schmid, Nate’s father, who had served as president since 1986 at the business that Schmid’s grandfather, John J. Schmid, and his brother began in 1909. The Schmids eventually were known as the “Smith” brothers because it was easier to say, said Steve Schmid.
But the comment about Nate being the next dairy president angered his wife, Cathy Schmid, mostly because the comment was never made again when she subsequently brought in two daughters.
The Schmids didn’t want to pressure their kids to someday join the family business, as Steve Schmid had been by his grandfather.
Growing up at the dinner table, “they heard the good, bad and ugly,” Steve Schmid said. “We wanted them to do what they wanted to do.”
Schmid, 61, started working at the dairy “as a lad” until he went to college. He also had stints doing some volunteer work and graduate school.
“My grandfather had an 8th-grade education and couldn’t figure out why I wanted a high school degree,” said Schmid.
On Dec. 10, Nate Schmid, now 32, returned to Smith Dairy to take over as president, replacing Ron Them, who had been president since 2008 and with the company since 1974. Steve Schmid is president of Schmid Inc., the parent company, and Dairy Enterprises, which markets products manufactured by Smith Dairy.
Nate Schmid is now the first member of the family’s fourth generation to run the dairy and its manufacturing and distribution of its products. The parent company employs about 500, including 300 at its Orrville campuses. There are also six distribution centers throughout the state with plants in Indiana and Missouri, where the company has other regional brands.
Another large Orrville company, J.M. Smucker, is in its fourth generation of leaders with members of the fifth generation in senior management.
Choosing a career path
Nate Schmid’s career path wasn’t always headed to the dairy. After he and his sisters worked at the dairy during their teen years doing everything from sweeping warehouses to cleaning water treatment tanks, Nate took summer jobs in high school as a lifeguard.
“I was not going to be told what I was going to do,” he said.
He got an engineering degree at Calvin College, worked for 2½ years for Innotec Group, an automotive and office supply manufacturer in Michigan, and then 2½ years starting the company’s operations in Shanghai, China. He then went to the University of Michigan for an MBA and most recently was working in Chicago for biotech and pharmaceutical manufacturer Baxter International in finance and corporate strategy.
One younger sister is a neuroscientist and the other works in food services for a hospital group.
While the third generation of the Schmid family owns the majority of the company, before Nate Schmid’s return, only one other family member was working there — Steve Schmid’s brother, John, vice president of human resources.
There are 11 nieces and nephews in the fourth generation and in recent years, the family has added a rotating seat on the board of directors to try to get some of them involved.
But Steve Schmid said he wondered about the next generation.
“Sooner or later I thought, ‘OK, I’ve chased them away. How am I going to get them to come back?’ ” he recalled.
For Nate, it was never a foregone conclusion that he would or wouldn’t return.
“When I finally got my feet wet from the business perspective, I had the most fun building something. To me, this business was always a bit of a golden handcuff, if you will. I want to be able to jump back in, but I realized there would be no more ex-pat roles for me in Europe or Asia,” said the younger Schmid.
“The dairy was always appealing to me,” he said. “It always hung out there.”
Ready for return
The timing was just right, said Nate and Steve Schmid. It was a combination of Them announcing his retirement and Nate Schmid being newly married and his wife wanting to leave Chicago.
It wasn’t that she wanted necessarily to come to Ohio, Schmid said. But the couple looked for the “biggest metropolis” and is renting a townhome in downtown Akron.
“Eventually everyone grows up. This is a real opportunity to step into a well-established organization — not without its problems — and help shape that,” he said. “I also had mentors who said ‘I would kill for that opportunity,’ so I took that for granted.”
“It’s a chance to try to strike out on my own. It’s somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s on you. If you’re good, the organization will be good.”
Nate Schmid said he feels that he can make a good impact based on his outside experiences.
“I’ve seen how a lot of companies have operated — some good and bad. I’d like to be able to help bring best practices,” he said. When asked his goals, Schmid said he’d like to be able to connect personally with the broader community with his wife, Ashleigh, a social worker, and he wants to get to know all of the employees and the broader organization. He also has some growth opportunity ideas but declined to go into details.
“I’ve not marinated extensively in the dairy business, so there is a large learning curve,” he said.
Variety of products
Smith Dairy produces milk, sour cream, cottage cheese and Smith’s and Ruggles brands ice creams. The nature of dairy products makes mostly for regional brands and Smith’s reach is in almost all of Ohio, except the Cincinnati area. They are the primary milk supplier for Acme Fresh Markets, where they sell both their Smith’s brand and package the Acme brand for the grocer. Smith’s products are sold at Buehler’s and Giant Eagle carries Ruggle’s ice cream, said Schmid.
Wayne County is one of the biggest milk-supplying counties in the state. In Wayne and surrounding counties, Smith purchases milk from more than 200 farms.
Often that milk is pumped from the cows and pasteurized and packaged and on store shelves by the following day, the company said.
As a private company, Smith does not disclose sales figures, but each day, the company processes, packages and delivers about 150,000 gallons of milk, 4,800 pounds of cottage cheese, sour cream and dips and produces more than 4 million gallons of ice cream a year.
Acme Fresh Market Executive Vice President Jim Trout said he hasn’t yet met Nate Schmid, “but he couldn’t have a better mentor than his father, Steve. Steve brings an incredible amount of professionalism to Smith Dairy. He’s got that dairy really running very, very well. He’s one of Acme’s key vendor partners.
“It’s also very important that in these family businesses that Acme see a succession plan. If not, you have to wonder what’s going to happen in the future,” said Trout.
Steve Schmid said he’s not ready to retire.
“This is my hobby. I will retire at some point. Nate working here has given me a different perspective. But I’m not ready to say I’m out of here,” he said.
“I want to keep working on making this place a place people want to be,” he said.