DMI CEO O’Brien Has Checkoff on Right Track

  • 4 min read April 4, 2022
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

Technically, the honeymoon is over, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

Barb O’Brien officially took the reins as CEO of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) last October and the first half of her first year has revealed one very important trait she has as a leader: Barb listens.

Make no mistake, she possesses the business acumen that appeals to our farmer and dairy importer funders, but she also has made it clear this isn’t about her vision alone.

She spent the early going of her new tenure simply listening. She spoke with hundreds of dairy farmers, industry leaders and experts within the broader business and finance community to hear their ideas and what they had to say about the checkoff’s direction.

Farmers expect their checkoff to deliver on what it is designed to do: drive sales and build trust. But there’s another expectation: We want our checkoff leaders to be transparent and open to hearing from us and that’s what Barb is showing. In fact, she often says a quote that has become a favorite of mine: “Although listening can sound like a passive function, it’s far from it. It’s actually the best communications technique to use in meeting someone where they are and understanding their position and perspectives.”

One of the key moves Barb has made is to clearly connect the checkoff dots. She is visibly showing the connectivity between DMI, National Dairy Council, GENYOUth, Newtrient and the U.S. Dairy Export Council. This is our checkoff team – and I mean that singularly – despite the fact there are different companies with different missions.

Barb also will continue to keep the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy front and center, an organization that has united the industry in a pre-competitive spirit and has put farmers at the table with the nation’s largest dairy companies to work collectively for the greater good.

It’s very visible how much Barb values the people behind the scenes who are the day-to-day operators of the checkoff programs. We recently held the Dairy Experience Forum in Arizona that attracted farmer leaders from across the country to weigh in on checkoff strategies. The forum included breakout sessions focused on:

  • Growing sales domestically though powerful partnerships.
  • Growing U.S. dairy sales internationally through exports and international partnerships. 
  • Building trust in dairy with an emphasis on reaching Gen Z consumers.
  • Advancing U.S. dairy’s position as part of a global food system.

It wasn’t Barb leading these presentations but rather checkoff staffs locally, nationally and globally who had their talents and insights on full display. This small-group setting allowed for farmers to meet team members and ask questions and learn more about their jobs.

These sessions, coupled with the fact many farmers were hearing Barb speak in person for the first time, made this a very successful meeting. One farmer who is a veteran of the forum meetings declared this the best one he has ever attended. He then remarked how Barb seems to truly care and wants to do her best for the checkoff. He was impressed with her being approachable and called her “very real.”

I concur!

But all that aside, Barb is very business savvy and there are many parts of the checkoff strategy we should feel good about. One is Barb’s commitment to move dairy forward through science and research. It’s about going deeper with dairy’s nutritional benefits, including new ways to look at milk and the role it plays with immunity, calm, energy and digestive health, which are important attributes to the younger generation. There also is a commitment to better understand the molecules of milk and unlocking the benefits they possess. And, of course, I can’t overlook the powerful collaboration we recently established with the Mayo Clinic.

But it goes beyond health and wellness and into on-farm research that is taking place through the industrywide Net Zero Initiative so we can discover ways to make our farms even more sustainable while unlocking new revenue streams.

There’s a definite excitement in the air and it starts at the top. Barb has introduced an acronym at meetings – not that the dairy industry needs another acronym! – but this is one I feel summarizes the checkoff well.

It’s ASPIRE and it stands for action, sustainability, people, innovation, reputation and exports.

These are the pillars from which the checkoff will operate. They summarize very well the sort of strategy – led by the sort of leader – we all can get behind.