Executive Q & A: Jim Wegner

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Darigold, which has $2.4 billion in annual sales and 1,415 employees, is the marketing and processing subsidiary of the Seattle-based Northwest Dairy Association, a producer cooperative with 542 member families. Jim Wegner, previously senior vice president of operations in charge of the company’s 12 processing plants, was appointed CEO last year. He was photographed in the test kitchen at Darigold headquarters on Rainier Avenue South.

SCOPE: Most people don’t realize how big Darigold is. We handle 8.74 billion pounds of milk a year and only a third of that goes to consumers as milk. We have a huge export business, accounting for nearly a quarter of all United States exports of cheese, butter and powdered milk. In places like Southeast Asia and Mexico that are hot and humid, cows do not thrive and so the countries have to import milk powder. There is also a growing market in North Africa, where Nestlé, one of our biggest customers, sells little sachets of single-serve milk powder, chocolate drinks and infant formula.

EARLY YEARS: I was raised on a wheat and cattle ranch in Reardan, a small town west of Spokane in Lincoln County. The ranch was originally purchased by my immigrant great-grandparents in 1905. Reardan is a community of people with a strong work ethic trying to build a good life for their families under very challenging circumstances. I used to raise and train cattle to exhibit in Eastern Washington livestock shows. I worked side by side with my father to raise animals. People in the city don’t realize that on a farm you can do everything right but still fail due to things out of your control, like weather or prices.

CAREER: I graduated in food science and technology from Washington State University and went to work at a Safeway processing plant. I had to learn every job in the plant, from cleaning up to pasteurizing. I worked all the night shifts. I can relate well to the people who are operating our plants because I have done a lot of their jobs.

MANAGEMENT STYLE: I try to involve people a lot more to get input from them. We’ve put a process in place where every day we shut the line down and talk about what’s going on. We try to identify problems and talk about what we can do to fix them. It’s a way to bring fresh ideas in. We talk about what are appropriate measures of success and allow people to measure if they are winning or losing. People like to win. They like to think that things are better in terms quality, productivity and safety.

HISTORY: Darigold started in 1918. We now have 542 member families. Over time, smaller co-ops have merged with larger co-ops for greater efficiency. Two years ago, we merged with a co-op in Montana. They had more milk than their one facility could handle. By working with us, they had a [guaranteed] market for the milk. About 30 percent of the milk goes as fresh milk to the grocery shelf. The rest gets converted into cheese, milk powder or butter.

THE MARKET: What’s unique about the dairy industry is that it produces a highly perishable product every day and it is essential to have a place where the milk can be processed every day. Before the [United States] government stepped in to provide some stability, there were times when milk would get dumped because there wasn’t a market for it. Darigold converts the milk into something stable that can be stored and easily transported. As more milk continues to be produced in the United States, more and more of it will have to be exported.

COMPETITION: We’ve improved the science for optimizing the diets [of cows] so that the amount of milk we produce per cow is twice what it is in many places in the world. But it’s difficult for us to compete on price in global markets with countries like New Zealand, because we have a highly regulated pricing system. We pay our producers based on a federal price that’s set based on the domestic price of cheese and milk. We produce a million pounds of milk powder a day and we are often selling it [globally] two or three months out without knowing what we will have to pay for the milk.

MARKETING: We need do a better job connecting our consumers with the producers. One of the big issues in our society is that people are disconnected from where their food comes from. They don’t know Darigold is a producer owned by farmers. They don’t know how sustainable dairy farming is and how significant it is to the state’s economy. It’s second to apples, but the jobs that we provide are year-round jobs. In 2011, Darigold was the first winner of a national award for dairy sustainability. People don’t realize that dairy cows consume feeds like hay and byproducts from cotton production that people can’t digest and turn that into high-value protein. Cows are a very efficient way to produce protein.

NEW MARKETS: As the population gets older, the demand for fresh milk will decline. So how do you find other ways people can incorporate milk into their diets? We have invested a lot of money in technology to do the higher-end products. We just spent $20 million in Boise for a facility to produce cottage cheese and sour cream. We’re looking at products like Greek yogurt that are high in protein. We developed a coffee creamer made with real milk that people love. We produce Refuel, a protein drink that’s good for athletes. We’ve got the only plant in the Northwest that produces ultra-pasteurized milk products that have a longer shelf life, like the single-serve milk cartons used in school cafeterias.

BEING A CO-OP: Having your suppliers be your bosses makes for interesting dynamics. On the one hand, we need to reinvest in new products for long-term growth and stability. On the other hand, the [dairy farms] would like to be paid as much as possible for their milk. Each member of our board of directors represents a region and has occasional meetings with member dairies in their area. In addition, two of the 17 members of our board are outside directors, so they can bring a different perspective. One formerly worked for Goldman Sachs. He was amazed at how complicated the dairy business is.

Three Investors Who Believe in the Innovative Capabilities of Local Entrepreneurs

Three Investors Who Believe in the Innovative Capabilities of Local Entrepreneurs

Meet Matt McIlwain, Nick Hanauer and Dan Levitan.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, Seattle is not yet a hotbed of venture capital activity. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff said as much in an interview earlier this year with The Seattle Times. While discussing the healthy state of the region’s tech business, Rascoff observed, “From a technology landscape standpoint, I’m pleased with the vibrancy of the startup community, [but] I still think … Seattle needs more institutional venture capital. The fact that we have really only a handful of venture-capital firms based here is going to hold the region back from fulfilling its potential.”

Still, without capital from local investors, many of the companies that now form the backbone of the Puget Sound economy — from Amazon to Zulily, from Julep to Juno Therapeutics — might not exist, or might exist elsewhere.

So here’s to the venture capitalists who call Seattle home and who find promise and potential profit in betting on companies like Apptio and Avvo. Dato and Drugstore.com (acquired by Walgreen’s). Front Desk and FanNation.com (acquired by Sports Illustrated). Isilon Systems (acquired by EMC) and Insitu (acquired by Boeing). Moz and Modumetal. Redfin and Rover.com. Shippable and Spaceflight Services. Trupanion and Talyst. And plenty more.

On the pages that follow, we feature three prominent members of Seattle’s venture capital community who believe in the region’s ability to create viable, sustainable businesses here. Two have made Forbes magazine’s annual Midas List of the top 100 venture capitalists in the world. The other has become a civic activist dedicated to addressing — and solving — economic inequality.

DAN LEVITAN
Dan Levitan cofounded Maveron with Howard Schultz in 1998. Since then, he has been the key player on many of Maveron’s home runs, including Zulily. In 2014, Forbes magazine named him to its Midas List of the top 100 VCs in the world. Levitan is a graduate of Duke University and has an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success.  Zulily and eBay 

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Blue Nile

Most important things to look for in a startup. The entrepreneur and his/her team; the size of the market; and a differentiated product/service

Best location for closing a deal. The CEO’s office

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. We specialize in identifying, financing and mentoring highly disruptive and immersive, consumer-facing companies. We love — and invest in — companies that integrate into the lives of consumers and make the world a better place.

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. Howard Schultz [of Starbucks], because he built one of the most respected brands in the world. 

Top two deal makers. Awesome entrepreneur, insanely driven to succeed

Top two deal breakers. Anything outside of consumer or anything too small

What do you do for fun? I go to Duke basketball games.

What kind of car do you drive? Tesla Model S 

You might not know. Levitan has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. He found a mentor in Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who taught Levitan the central lesson of Maveron’s consumer-focused success: Always ask, “Do you love your team?” 

NICK HANAUER
Nick Hanauer is an entrepreneur with a broad range of experience across manufacturing, retailing, e-commerce, digital media, advertising, software, aerospace, health care and finance. In 2015, he also founded Civic Ventures, a small group of political “troublemakers” devoted to ideas, policies and actions centering on significant social change. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success. For sure, aQuantive. I founded it and funded a big part of it and sold it [to Microsoft] for $6.4 billion. Also, Amazon as a first-round investor.

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Rich Barton asked me to invest in Glassdoor, but I was too lazy to do anything. That was a screw-up.

Most important things to look for in a startup. My first screen is “Nick’s rule of transformational value.” Every great business is predicated on a product or service that creates what I call transformational value — that is, it is either 10 times better or 10 times cheaper or, ideally, both. Second, of course, the quality of the people. Bad people can kill a great idea but great people can evolve a mediocre idea.

Best location for closing a deal. My office.

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. My partners and I look for very early-stage-ideas companies. We try to be hard core about them being headquartered locally, but have made exceptions for entrepreneurs we already knew and trusted. We are somewhat agnostic to industry, reasoning that it’s the stuff you have not considered before that may be the biggest opportunity. For example, one of our best and most exciting investments was Insitu [acquired by Boeing for $400 million], and they made drones before anyone knew what drones were. 

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. It’s hard to beat [Amazon’s] Jeff Bezos. My pal Rich Barton [of Zillow] comes close.  

Top two deal makers. Simplicity and focus

Top two deal breakers. Complexity and confusion

What do you do for fun? What don’t I do for fun? I believe that one of my finest and rarest qualities is my ability to efficiently convert money into fun.

What kind of car do you drive? Tesla Model S P90D

You might not know. Hanauer is a co-author (with Eric Liu) of two best-selling books in the political genre, The True Patriot and The Gardens of Democracy. He has been featured in two documentary films on economic inequality — American Winter and Inequality for All.

MATT MCILWAIN 

Matt McIlwain joined Madrona Venture Group in 2000 and focuses on a broad range of software-driven firms. Current investments include Apptio, Envelop VR and Smartsheet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he holds an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He was named to the Forbes Midas List in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success. Isilon Systems [acquired by EMC for $2.25 billion]

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Airbnb

Most important things to look for in a startup. Customer-driven problem/need; differentiated and technology-driven solution; compelling founding team that can build a great company

Best location for closing a deal. Coffee shop or a great restaurant

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. Virtual reality/augmented reality companies and “application intelligence” companies that leverage machine learning to make apps smarter

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. Sunny Gupta [of Apptio] is world class at customer focus, attracting great people and product-market fit.

Top two deal makers. Great judgment, passion for the opportunity

Top two deal breakers. Not focusing on the customer’s problem, lack of transparency

What do you do for fun? Travel, play (and watch) sports, discuss policy issues

What kind of car do you drive? 2011 BMW 535i

You might not know. McIlwain came to venture capital investing from an unlikely place: the Genuine Auto Parts Company in Atlanta, Georgia, which owns NAPA Auto Parts. He ended up spending a lot of time with venture capitalists and venture-backed companies that were interested in investing in the sector. He worked with Madrona on some projects and joined the firm in 1999.