Down on the farm

Fifth-generation Kleinpeter learning the dairy business

It’s fitting that at the same time Kleinpeter Farms Dairy is celebrating its 100th anniversary, the fifth generation of Kleinpeters is beginning to enter the family business.

Taylor Kleinpeter, the daughter of Kleinpeter Farms President Jeff Kleinpeter and the great-great-granddaughter of Sebastian Louis “Sib” Kleinpeter, who co-founded the dairy in 1913, has spent the past month working at a 1,600-acre dairy farm in rural St. Helena Parish. This is the first step in an intensive training process that will prepare Taylor Kleinpeter to eventually take a leadership role with the dairy.

“This is no cakewalk to say the least,” Kleinpeter said, sitting back in an office at the farm, wearing an oversized pair of rubber boots. “I’ve had fun, but I have started at the bottom.”

Kleinpeter, 24, graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in May with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. Now she’s working as an assistant herdsperson — Kleinpeter jokes that she broke the glass ceiling for the herdsman’s job — and showing up as early as 6 a.m. to tend to the 1,200-plus cows that live on the farm.

“I’m around cows all day long and my main priority is to take care of them,” Kleinpeter said.

That includes helping with the feeding and milking of cows and moving pregnant animals out of the herd so they can give birth in special pens.

Jeff Kleinpeter said the company developed a special executive pathway for family members who want to enter the business. Taylor is the second person to go through the program, the first was Stanford Ponson, her cousin. Ponson worked for Kleinpeter for about five years, but recently decided to go back to school to get a combination MBA and law degree.

“This is a special deal, with Taylor being my daughter,” Jeff Kleinpeter said. “She’s committed to staying with us, and I want her to see all of the business. She is the one.”

When Jeff Kleinpeter started working for the dairy in the late 1980s, he said it was a “sink or swim” situation. Jeff Kleinpeter was told his uncle Vincent “Bobo” Kleinpeter was retiring and that he needed to learn how to do his job.

“I want her to learn what happens in every aspect of the operation,” Jeff Kleinpeter said. “We started out at the farm when we were kids, driving tractors, milking cows, but we were never pulled to the side and told ‘This is what we mix to feed the cows.’ We never got the exposure to many things in the operation.”

Kleinpeter said he doesn’t mean that the way he was prepared for the family business was better or worse than what he is doing for his daughter, but that it was different.

And Kleinpeter Farms is in business today because of family members stepping up to handle responsibilities at an early age. Jeff Kleinpeter said his uncles Mike and Vincent were driving milk trucks at the age of 12 and 13 because their three older brothers and many other dairy employees were serving in World War II.

“They would wake up at 3 a.m. to get everything ready. And they would serve customers on the way to school,” he said. “At recess, they would go out to the truck to make sure the ice was on the milk because they didn’t have refrigerated trucks back then.”

Drew Mendoza, managing principal with the Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago, said about 3 to 5 percent of businesses make it to the point where a fifth generation of a family is involved in running the company.

“It’s more about the culture and the structure of the company and the ownership than the industry they are in,” Mendoza said. “They need to be able to protect their market share and have a strategy that is revisited regularly to make sure it is sustainable.” The key to having a family-run business last for 100 years or more is to have a supportive and aligned shareholder group that remains competitive and innovative, Mendoza said.

Taylor Kleinpeter’s training will mirror the journey that milk takes as it passes through the dairy. It starts at the farm.

“If we’re not getting high-quality milk from this farm, how are we going to sell it?” Jeff Kleinpeter said. “We can’t improve it.”

After a few months on the farm, Taylor will next go to the lab that receives the milk and studies it, followed by stints in the standardization department where various types of Kleinpeter milk are blended; the department that produces and fills milk jugs; the loading docks; sales routes; and the company offices.

“This will take a while, probably about two years,” Jeff Kleinpeter said.

Mike Price, who manages the Kleinpeter farm, said Taylor and Price’s son, Brendan, who works as the assistant farm manager, are being held to a higher standard than the company’s other 130 employees.

“They have to prove to their co-workers and fellow employees they earned the right to be a leader,” Price said.

So far, Taylor Kleinpeter is off to a good start. Price said her first day on the job, when she had to lead cows into the milking parlor “she got right to it.”

“I knew there was no quit in this young lady,” he said.

Taylor Kleinpeter said joining the staff at the dairy makes perfect sense for her. She thought about a career as a veterinarian, but realized that her true passion was marketing.

Kleinpeter hopes to move to the company’s marketing department in the next five to 10 years, a job that makes her father jealous.

“It took me 18 years to get to marketing — 18 years!” Jeff Kleinpeter said.