John E. Gherty

Chief executive officer and president, Land O'Lakes

Nationality: American.

Born: 1945.

Education: University of Wisconsin–Madison, BA, 1965.

Family: Married Anne (maiden name unknown), 1979; children: three.

Career: Land O'Lakes, 1970–1979, attorney; 1979–1981, assistant to the president; 1981–1989, group vice president and chief administration officer; 1989–, CEO and president.

Awards: Honorary Recognition, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1999.

Address: Land O'Lakes, Box 64101, St. Paul, Minnesota 55164;

■ John Gherty was a driving force in the growth and direction of Land O'Lakes since joining the farmer-owned food and agricultural cooperative in 1970. Gherty's vision for Land O'Lakes took the company's business global and expanded what was a moderately sized Minnesota cooperative with a solid brand-name product base into an international player. He believed the responsibilities of a corporate leader to include promoting and living the values of the company, a philosophy he embraced both personally and professionally.


Gherty's early life was spent in a close-knit rural society where having a career implied being a farmer and living a life that balanced farm, family, and community. Early on Gherty learned lessons about the hardships, joys, and responsibilities of the agricultural life. Even in his youth Gherty considered making social contributions to be important, as demonstrated by his involvement with the local 4-H club and his decision to serve as its president. He was instilled by his rural nurturing with work habits and an ethic that he would carry through to adulthood. Gherty's childhood on his family's dairy farm in New Richmond, Wisconsin, built a foundation of life and community values that he would successfully integrate with his career goals as an adult.

In the mid-1980s Gherty left the family farm to earn business, industrial relations, and law degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, ultimately taking him away from the farm. As evidence of his personal philosophy, before selecting a career track, Gherty chose to spend a year "giving back." In 1968 and 1969, after graduating from college, Gherty served as a VISTA volunteer in Chicago.


When Gherty joined Land O'Lakes as an attorney in 1970, he recognized that a company dedicated to the betterment of farmers and the farming lifestyle would to him be the ideal work environment. Within a few years the young executive became assistant to the president.

Gherty's management style was that of a man who led by example. He followed his belief that when leadership came from the top down, it worked. As the keynote speaker for Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business Work/Life Symposium on April 11, 2003, Gherty expressed a passionate conviction that business leaders who developed organizational cultures that encouraged employees to blend work, family, and community were able to attract, retain, and motivate a high-performing workforce and to make a positive difference in the lives of their employees.

Demonstrating his personal commitment to this philosophy, in his keynote address Gherty related a time when he "shifted a meeting with an important customer from the boardroom to the soccer field so he could watch his daughter's game" (2003). More commonly, Gherty used the "power of the appointment book" simply to reserve time for family, treating family events with an importance equal to that of any business meeting.

A University of Wisconsin press release lauding the recipients of the Honorary Recognition Award reported that Gherty, upon being named president and CEO of Land O'Lakes in 1989, said, "Sometimes people higher up have to remind themselves that someone who is a janitor is just as important" (August 1999). Gherty considered employees—specifically the "right" employees—to be a company's biggest assets.

Gherty created a strong vision for Land O'Lakes that was shared by the board of directors and, by all accounts, was successfully communicated to the cooperative membership and to employees. By creating and following his vision, leading by example, and initiating bold corporate change, Gherty turned his beliefs into action. Under his leadership Land O'Lakes developed a work environment designed to empower all employees to achieve balance between family and work. Gherty maintained that offering work and life benefits to employees never comprised profits, claiming that employees enriched by a balanced life delivered the same productivity without sacrificing quality. He introduced a number of programs designed to enable workers to achieve this balance, including flexible hours, job sharing, part-time work, telecommuting, maternity and paternity leave, childcare and elder-care resources, and rewards for community service.


Gherty's vision for Land O'Lakes' future was not limited to the achievement of balance between life and career for the company's employees; he aimed to make Land O'Lakes a profitable global power in agribusiness. According to a Feedstuffs interview in July 2003, Gherty was among the first to recognize that significant changes were taking place in agriculture. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s Land O'Lakes' local and regional produce customers would grow in size and begin to look for more from their regional marketers as well as for markets beyond the Corn Belt.

When Gherty became chief executive officer in 1989, Land O'Lakes' business focus rested primarily on regional dairy production and the supplying of scientifically formulated feed and agronomy products. After Gherty assumed leadership, he and the corporation expanded their influence beyond the Midwest cooperative community. According to Terry Nagle, the Land O'Lakes director of communications, in a quote from the company press release, Gherty's "commitment to agriculture, combined with his leadership and clear vision for what people could accomplish by working together, have created a national cooperative system" (August 1999).

Under Gherty's direction the Land O'Lakes board instituted an aggressive plan of diversification, using acquisitions, mergers, and marketing to expand Land O'Lakes—in less than five years' time—into one of the largest and most influential dairy and farm-supply cooperatives with a strong national and international marketplace presence.

Land O'Lakes operated three divisions: dairy products, agricultural products, and international foods. As the company was a cooperative, the management team was answerable to a board of directors that was in turn answerable to the cooperative's members. As Gherty noted in the Feedstuffs interview, the growth of a cooperative was different from the growth of more traditional businesses: "Land O'Lakes can't issue stock to raise capital to keep buying market share"; rather, a cooperative must bring "discipline to the businesses that we are in. We have to manage our portfolio" to ensure successful consolidation (July 2003).

The company's significant brand identification was primarily visible in the dairy line. The Land O'Lakes brand name was included on products such as milk, sour cream, cheese, butter, dips, and sauces. The dairy division accounted for more than 60 percent of annual revenues.

The agricultural division included the subdivisions of swine, animal feed, and agronomy (the science of agriculture). The swine market proved to be a difficult one for Land O'Lakes; the division struggled to be profitable. Land O'Lakes owned a 50 percent share in Agriliance, the largest American distributor of crop nutrients, crop-protection products, and other agronomic products. A number of joint ventures and mergers occurred in the agricultural division, leading to market presences in specialty corn products, animal feeds, and consumer foods.

Land O'Lakes' international foods group exported branded and food-ingredient products to more than 60 countries. It also developed custom product formulations and packaging and provided logistics and technical support as well as research and development to farmers and agribusinesses in developing nations.

A Datamonitor report generated in June 2003 considered Land O'Lakes to be well positioned to build on its expansion from the several preceding years; yet, the report also noted that the company faced intense competition, a sensitivity to rising energy costs, and the need to integrate its acquisitions; in addition the company carried a significant debt burden. Gherty's remarks in annual reports from the early 2000s confirmed the relevance of these contentions but also expressed confidence in the management team's plan to ensure continued company growth.

Under Gherty's leadership, Land O'Lakes grew from a successful regional cooperative whose greatest resource was its nationally recognized brand name into a leading marketer in the United States and abroad of dairy-based consumer food-service products, food and animal-feed ingredients, and agricultural supplies such as feed, seed, crop nutrients, and crop-protection products.


Gherty dedicated more than 30 years of his life to Land O'Lakes. His continued efforts to help farmers receive fair returns on their products and his commitment to the cooperative way of life earned him the admiration of colleagues. Gherty received the Honorary Recognition Award from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. According to a Web article praising recipients of the award, this honor, the highest bestowed by the college, "recognizes people who have made outstanding contributions toward the development of agriculture, protection of natural resources, and improvement of rural living" (August 1999).

Gherty in particular earned the Honorary Recognition Award because of his tireless work "to protect the public policy environment in which farmer-owned cooperatives operate, in order to ensure their ability to serve the economic interests of their farmer-owners"; his work "benefited not only Land O'Lakes members, but farmer cooperatives nationwide" (August 1999). Jerome Kozak, the chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, also praised Gherty's career, saying that "the dairy industry in Wisconsin would not be the same if it were not for Jack's leadership of Land O'Lakes during the past three decades" (August 1999).

Gherty's commitment to achieve balance in work, family, and community led him to serve on the boards of directors of numerous national organizations, including CF Industries, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the National 4-H Council, and the Minnesota Life Insurance Company, and to chair the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Locally he served on the board of the Greater Twin Cities United Way and was a member of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

Gherty's support of education was also significant; he gave substantial financial support to the joint CALS/UW Business School Agribusiness programs and encouraged recruitment of CALS graduates into his organization. He formed the Land O'Lakes Foundation, which provided funds for youth scholarships and supported local 4-H and FFA chapters.

See also entry on Land O'Lakes, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Boland, Michael A., and Jeffrey P. Katz, "Executive Voice: An Interview," Academy of Management Executive , August 2003.

"Five to Receive Honorary Recognition Awards from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences," August 1999, .

Smith, Rod, "LOL's Gherty Says Scale, Size Require Discipline in Portfolio," Feedstuffs , July 28, 2003, p. 6.

"Work/Life Balance: It's About Time," Tuck News , Dartmouth College, Summer 2003, p. 24.

—C. K. Zulkosky

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