Dairy Checkoff Turns Page to New Leadership

  • 4 min read October 6, 2021
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

I can’t even begin to tell you how nice it was to be in Madison, Wisc., for the recent World Dairy Expo. It had a bit of a turning-of-the-page feel as we reconnected with our fellow farmers and friends in our quest to safely return to a normal life.

Expo week also offered a more profound turning-of-the-page moment for the dairy checkoff. Tom Gallagher used the occasion to announce he is stepping down as CEO of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), a job he has held for 30 years.

That length of tenure not just for a CEO but for any employee is rare. Other opportunities have come Tom’s way, but he always stayed for one very basic reason – he loves working for dairy farmers. We always came first for him. His drive was to provide a better future for us and the importers and after three decades on the job, I’d say he succeeded.

He leaves a sound legacy and a highlight reel of successes as he transitions to the next chapter(s) of his life and the DMI Board of Directors happily welcomes Barb O’Brien into his position. There is much to celebrate about Tom’s career, and I could fill the rest of this space with those accomplishments, but I’ll narrow it down to my top three:

  • Partnerships – when the checkoff shifted its business strategy from advertising to working with and through others, it opened a whole new world of opportunities for the checkoff. DMI suddenly was working side-by-side with major foodservice companies such as McDonald’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. As a result of our resources and expertise, dairy’s place on their menus grew in prominence. The partnership model also stretches beyond foodservice as DMI works with leading processors and cooperatives.
  • U.S. Dairy Export Council – the idea of selling more U.S. dairy beyond our borders was the inspiration behind DMI’s creation of the U.S. Dairy Export Council in 1995. This has especially been crucial with our production figures growing over the years. The good news is that exports have helped to fill the gap, ensuring market balance by accounting for more than 16 percent of total milk solids production in 2020. Since 2003, over half of all additional milk produced by U.S. farmers has gone to exports, and that figure is growing. In fact, 75 percent of the “new milk” produced in 2020 went overseas.
  • Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy – uniting the industry through a precompetitive approach is the strategy behind the Innovation Center and it’s worked very well. Companies adopt a pre-competitive mindset as they collectively address the changing needs and expectations of consumers and customers. The Innovation Center focuses on important areas such as the environment, nutrition and health, animal care, food safety and community contributions.

While there are other achievements, the board is most pleased that Barb inherits a strong foundation that is ripe for more growth and opportunities.

No doubt, she will hit the ground running. It was important to the DMI board, as well as to my fellow chairs – Neil Hoff (United Dairy Industry Association) and Alex Peterson (National Dairy Promotion and Research Board) – that we maintain continuity. When companies lose a CEO, it’s common to look outside the organization to identify a new direction or voice and we certainly discussed that option. But ultimately, we decided DMI didn’t need that. The national dairy checkoff functions in a unique way with much of our success occurring because of sound relationships and partnerships that have been built over time.

Barb has been the cornerstone of much of that relationship work, particularly through her role as CEO of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. She has been the engine behind the Innovation Center as well as many other aspects of checkoff work that it only makes sense to allow her to continue leading us down the many paths she has forged in her 20 years at DMI. We’re very fortunate to have someone of her deep skill set, vision, demeanor and farmer commitment to make this a very smooth and seamless transition.

So, on behalf of the board, we thank Tom, and we wish him nothing but happiness as he transitions to other interests. If you know Tom, you know this is anything but a retirement. He was pretty clear about that at World Dairy Expo, saying hitting golf balls isn’t his thing nor is slowing down. He’s going to give his next pursuits, including teaching more college classes, his full commitment and I know he’ll carry the dairy torch and the work farmers do with him everywhere he goes.

Also on behalf of the board, we very much welcome Barb to her new role! It’ll be exciting to watch her put her own stamp on the checkoff strategy and to see her vision and plan unfold.

It’s a very exciting time as the baton is passed from one strong leader to another, and from one person who always had our best interests at heart to another who feels the same way.