CHEESE ARRAY — Gilman Cheese specializes in premium quality, shelf-stable processed and smoked cheese for the gift pack, retail and airline industries. One of the fastest-growing areas of the company is its organic line of processed cheese.
|LEADING GILMAN — Gilman Cheese invests in its employees by offering leadership and communication classes in conjunction with Chippewa Valley Technical College. The leadership classes are held on Fridays at the plant.
By Kate Sander
GILMAN, Wis. — Some avoid taking on difficult projects while others relish it. Tom Hand, owner of Gilman Cheese Corp., is among the latter.
Gilman Cheese, located in the tiny village of Gilman in north central Wisconsin, is the area’s largest employer and specializes in premium quality, shelf-stable processed cheese for the gift pack, retail and airline industries as well as smoked cheese, both natural and processed. If a customer is looking for something unique and difficult in the process cheese business, Gilman Cheese wants to give it a try.
“The nature of our business model is that we do a lot of custom projects. If you’re looking for the finest quality processed cheese you can purchase, we’re your guy,” Hand says. “If you’re looking for filler or cheap product, we’re not your guy.
“We try to find difficult projects others don’t like or can’t do,” he adds.
Under the leadership of Hand and his wife, Char, who is CPA and office manager, Gilman Cheese is focused on producing unique products and convenient package sizes.
One of the fastest-growing areas of the company is its organic line of processed cheese. While “processed organic” may seem a bit of a misnomer, several years ago Hand observed that consumers of organic products needed cheese that melted like conventional American cheese on their burgers. Processed cheese has several technical advantages over natural cheese, including a longer shelf life, resistance to separating when cooked, and a uniform look and physical behavior, Hand notes.
And really, there isn’t a reason processed cheese can’t be organic — it’s a matter of sourcing organic ingredients.
Thus, Hand set out in 2010 to offer organic processed cheese. At first, sales were flat.
“I thought there would be a market and got involved before there was one,” he says now.
Over time, though, consumer interest took root. The first product that consumers were interested in were organic versions of American singles. Then, interest began to grow in flavored varieties.
“There tends to be bland offerings on the organic side. There’s processed cheese, but not flavors. But when consumers ask for it, you create it,” Hand says.
“The nature of our
is that we do a lot
of custom projects.
If you’re looking
for the finest quality
you can purchase,
we’re your guy.
If you’re looking
for filler or cheap
not your guy.”
To spice things up, the company now offers Organic American, Organic Ultra Sharp, Organic Horseradish and Organic Jalapeno.
Meanwhile, smoked cheese is the other fast-growing segment of Gilman Cheese’s business. The hickory smoke flavor and diamond-pattern smoke grids the company utilizes give its cheese a superior look and taste, Hand says. Depending on customer wishes, the company can smoke individual pieces or smoke larger bars and tubes that can be sliced and packaged after the smoke operation.
The company also offers reduced-fat and fat-free cheeses as well as kosher and rBST-free products. Retail package sizes range from 0.75-ounce to 1-pound with shapes including triangles, squares, bars, rounds and sticks. Five-pound loaves and 40-pound blocks also are available. The company produces approximately 15 million pounds of product a year and converts these pounds into more than 80 million individual pieces.
All of this flexibility for customers means the company has had to keep growing, Hand says.
Gilman Cheese Corp. has been part of the community since 1948, and Hand arrived in 1994 with the intention of learning the business, which then focused primarily on 5-pound loaves and 40-pound blocks, and eventually purchasing the company. He purchased the company in January 2000 and changed the name from Drangle Foods to Gilman Cheese Corp. in 2010. Gilman also became the company’s brand.
Since 2010, Gilman Cheese has completed five additions to its plant, more than doubling its size to 49,000 square feet. The additions also have allowed the company to expand its workforce to 120 employees from 50 in 2010.
The company utilizes two batch cookers that allow it to process up to 1,200 pounds of cheese every few minutes. These relatively small, rapidly produced batches allow the company to be flexible in meeting the varied needs of its customers, Hand says. On a typical day, Gilman Cheese will produce 100,000 pounds of processed cheese in 15-20 different flavors. Bacon Jalapeño, Horseradish and Chipotle Onion flavors are three of the more recent flavor introductions that have been popular, Hand says. The company runs eight packaging lines and operates 14 smoke houses.
“We try to find
others don’t like
or can’t do.”
Part of the reason for the multiple expansions is that the Hands chose to take the projects on a bit piecemeal as finances allowed; as the company grew, they reinvested in the business and did not borrow money to further expand.
Gilman Cheese also is set apart by its approach to employees, Hand says.
“We take good care of our staff; it’s an important part of who we are,” he says.
Acknowledging that work is just a part of employees’ lives, Hand says he focuses on creating a positive environment that allows employees time with their families and the community. The company runs four 10-hour shifts Monday through Thursday, and a half-day shift on Fridays from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, ahead of the holiday rush. The plant is closed on nights and weekends.
Even as the company has grown, Hand is integrally involved in the hiring process.
“I do the final interviews. I want to meet each employee and know them as a person,” he says, adding that “an easy smile” is necessary criteria for being hired.
Once people are hired, Gilman Cheese also has a system in place to help new employees feel comfortable. Each employee is assigned a personal trainer who has received extensive training in leadership skills to be their partner for the first two to four weeks at the company, providing them someone to answer questions and to be their friend on the job.
“We take good care
of our staff;
it’s an important part
of who we are.”
“There’s nothing worse than being hired by a company and not feeling welcome,” Hand says.
“The Golden Rule is a big part of our philosophy.”
Gilman Cheese also invests in employees by offering leadership and communication classes in conjunction with Chippewa Valley Technical College. The leadership classes are held on Fridays at the plant and participation is required.
“I want people to understand that leadership and developing people skills are as important to us as safety and food quality,” Hand says.
The Hands also believe in giving back to the community. The company offers scholarships for Gilman High School students and supports local organizations including Wausau’s Grand Theater, Gilman’s Fall Festival, Gilman’s community choir and the local high school band. It also hosts an annual concert in Gilman’s park for the community of Gilman. Additionally, the company donates more than 36,000 pounds of cheese annually to local school lunch programs and local food banks.
While the company has grown tremendously over the past decade, Hand anticipates a bit of a slow down. Not that sales will slow, mind you, but he wants to “get some rest.”
“I’m tired of expanding and spending money,” he says with a smile. “I’d like to catch my breath for awhile.”
He also notes that huge growth goals can become too much to manage.
“Slow and steady” wins the race, he says, noting that even when a company is doing well, mistakes can be made.
“I want people to think of us as a place to turn for high-quality cheese,” he adds.