The Big Cheese

Third-generation leader heads Sargento

Louie Gentine walks the halls of Sargento Foods Inc.’s expansive headquarters building in Plymouth. He smiles and greets his colleagues along the way, stopping to share a laugh or a conversation.

Some of them have been with Sargento for 30, 40 or 50 years, which means they knew or even worked alongside company founder Leonard Gentine, whose dream, when he started Sargento Cheese Co. in 1953, was to own a family business and pass it down through the generations.

Leonard Gentine

Sixty-five years later, Sargento rests in the hands of Leonard’s grandson Louie as he follows in his grandfather’s footsteps.

In the mid-1950s, it was Leonard who walked the shop floor of Sargento’s first, much smaller, production facility in Elkhart Lake – a cigarette lodged at the corner of his lips, bouncing up and down as he greeted and conversed with his nine employees.

Gentine would spend much of his time on the shop floor with a tool belt strapped around his waist, often sliding himself underneath a production machine to help his maintenance technicians fix and fine-tune the equipment.

With his technical skills and inventive mind, Gentine led Sargento not only to be the first company to produce pre-cut and -sliced natural cheese, but also to develop the first vacuum-sealed packaging for cheese. Those early innovations laid the groundwork for later breakthroughs, including the first packaged shredded cheese and the first re-sealable cheese packaging, which Sargento rolled out in 1986.

“He was a skilled machinist,” Louie said, remembering his grandfather. “And that creativity and desire to build things really never stopped.”

Leonard ran the company until his third eldest son and Louie’s father, Lou Gentine, took over in 1981. He remained involved at Sargento until Parkinson’s disease weakened his body.

Leonard passed away in 1996 at the age of 81, leaving a lasting legacy behind him.

Now in its third generation of leadership, the family-owned company employs 2,100 people, operates four Wisconsin plants, and boasts $1.4 billion in net sales. Succeeding his father in 2013, Louie leads a company that has clearly evolved from the small mom-and-pop cheese shop his grandfather once built.

Certainly, Leonard’s entrepreneurial drive and handy engineering skills drove Sargento’s early success, but it was also thanks to his leadership philosophy: “Hire good people and treat them like family.”

Leonard’s philosophy, despite decades of company growth and multi-generational leadership, has inspired a corporate culture that continues to provide a strong foundation for Sargento, proving to be one of its greatest assets, Lou said.

“The personal relationships that my grandfather was able to have with his 10 or 15 employees is obviously a little bit different than what it is today,” Louie said. “We want to have it like that, but it’s just not as realistic as we grow. We rely very heavily on every member of the Sargento family to have the philosophy of treating people with trust, respect and dignity. Because that is how you would treat your family.”

Leonard’s philosophy and entrepreneurial spirit lives on through a collection of historical accounts and memories, which were recently published as a book, “Treated Like Family.” Author Tom Faley is a 30-year employee of Sargento and was a close colleague of Leonard’s.

Faley and Louie Gentine will be the keynote speakers at BizTimes Media’s annual Family & Closely Held Business Summit on June 14 at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.

Louie and Lou Gentine
Credit: Saturn Lounge – Zak Gruber

Unexpected beginnings 

Leonard Gentine, a native of Milwaukee and the son of a French immigrant, was an entrepreneur at heart. But his entrepreneurial path took twists and turns before arriving at its final destination.

In his mid-20s, Leonard moved to Plymouth and opened his first business, Gentine Funeral Service. According to “Treated Like Family,” he and his wife, Dolores Gentine, ran the business, while residing at the funeral home, from 1939 until he sold it in 1956.

Within that span, Leonard pioneered several other ventures, including an ambulance service, mink farm, custard stand and gift box business – later leading him to start Sargento.

During the first two years he operated the funeral service, Leonard commuted to Milwaukee to work the third shift at Falk Corp. It was there that he learned how to operate and tinker with production machinery, a skill he used years later to find new ways of producing and packaging cheese.

His gift box business was his first step into the cheese industry. Leonard would wax coat small blocks of mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, cheddar and swiss and arrange the cheese into a box for companies to give to their employees during the holiday season. The operation expanded, and in 1949 he opened the Plymouth Cheese Counter in a small carriage house behind the funeral home.

Leonard sourced the cheese from Milwaukee Cheese Co. and from Plymouth-based S&R Cheese Corp., which was owned by Paolo Sartori.

Paolo’s son Joe Sartori lived across the street from Gentine, and the two had developed a friendship and business partnership as S&R supplied Gentine’s shop with Italian cheeses, including mozzarella, provolone and parmesan. These kinds of cheeses were new to the Plymouth market and began generating increased demand from customers.

Gentine saw this as an opportunity to start another venture that would become more successful than any of his previous businesses. And he asked Sartori to join him.

Building a foundation on innovation

On Oct. 23, 1953, Gentine and Sartori founded Sargento Cheese Co. They used the “Sar” in Sartori and “Gen” in Gentine to create the name, adding an Italian-sounding “o” to the end of the word.

Gentine invested $5,000 into the new business, and Sartori invested $5,000 of his personal funds and $5,000 of S&R’s funds in exchange for 50 shares of the new company. He also agreed to use S&R as Sargento’s primary cheese supplier.

At first, Sargento’s products were limited to wax-coated blocks of parmesan, romano, mozzarella and provolone, which were supplied to both local and national grocers. Soon after launching its groundbreaking innovations of sliced cheese and vacuum-sealed packaging, Sargento opened its first permanent production facility in Elkhart Lake.

The space helped the company grow its employee base and production quantity and stay ahead of competitors, many of which had caught on to its vacuum packaging invention. But in 1958, Gentine innovated again. Using a pasta cutter, he cut a block of mozzarella into four-inch strips, and Sargento became the first company to sell family-sized, vacuum-sealed packages of shredded cheese.

“What I learned from my grandfather was, in the area of innovation, you have to be willing to put forth the investment, knowing that sometimes you’re going to make a mistake,” Louie said. “If you’re not pushing yourself to try new things in the marketplace, with customers or the consumer, you’re probably not trying hard enough.”

In 1965, Sartori sold his shares of the company in an effort to focus on operating S&R Cheese, his own family business that later became Sartori Co. Sartori remained a close advisor to Gentine throughout the following years but since that time, Sargento has been owned solely by the Gentine family.

“The Sartori family is still very present here in Plymouth,” Louie said. “Their cheese company creates great cheese products that you can find in your local grocery stores. Our families, the Gentines and the Sartoris, have remained good family friends throughout our history and throughout the generations.”

To the rescue: the second generation steps in

Throughout the next 10 years, Sargento struggled financially as production and packaging expenses increased. In 1978, its 25th anniversary, the company hit a roadblock. Food Fair, a large local grocery chain and one of Sargento’s major customers, filed for bankruptcy and Sargento lost more than $500,000 that the grocer couldn’t pay, according to “Treated Like Family.”

In an effort to save Sargento, four of Leonard’s five children – Larry, Lou, Ann and Lee – used personal loans to purchase shares of the company from their father. By investing in the company, the second generation contributed enough money to keep Sargento afloat.

Leonard’s firstborn, Leonard “Butch” Gentine Jr., didn’t contribute because in 1974, he left Sargento to start World Wide Sales Inc., a Plymouth-based cheese brokerage firm. The company in 1988 changed its name to Masters Gallery Foods Inc., which continues to operate out of its Plymouth production facility.

In 1981, an outside board of directors appointed Lou to the role of CEO. Leonard transitioned to chairman, but stayed involved in company operations, remaining physically present on a regular basis.

“I give my father a great deal of credit for being willing to turn over the reins when he did at the age of 67,” Lou said. “My dad was really, truly the entrepreneur that got Sargento going. I definitely understood why he was giving this up, but sometimes it would come back to him that he wanted to be more involved – and we tried to get him more involved.”

With a business degree from the University of Notre Dame followed by three years as a CPA at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in Connecticut, Lou joined Sargento as an accountant in 1973, and eventually moved up the ranks. When the board of directors appointed him to his leadership role, he was ready to grow the company and guide it to financial security.

From a young age, Lou said, he had always been interested in being a part of Sargento. He had started working on the production lines in high school, but remembers working with his dad at an even earlier age. 

“Back in the early ’50s, my brothers and sister and I probably worked for the company when we were 9 or 10,” Lou recalls. “My dad would get us involved doing the most trivial of jobs just to get us to develop a work ethic.”

During Lou’s tenure, Sargento’s sales increased from $91 million in 1981 to more than $1 billion by late 2012.

“Leonard’s children, I don’t think, were as creative or as innovative as Leonard was and Leonard wasn’t as financially astute as his children were so it took the two to make the full company,” Faley said. “The torch had to be passed at the right time and they had to have the right talent to do it. And fortunately, Leonard’s family had that talent to carry that torch.”

Another transition

In 2013, 32 years to the day of Sargento’s first major leadership transition, Louie stepped into his new role as CEO of the company. Lou remains involved as chairman, a role he took on when Leonard died in 1996.

Like his father, Louie started working for Sargento in high school. He started out washing trucks and working on the production line, which later led to accounting, sales and retail roles during college. He graduated with a finance degree from Notre Dame, and after working for three years at American National Bank in Chicago and earning his MBA at Loyola University Chicago, Louie returned to Sargento in 2000.

Before any of the third-generation Gentines could return to Sargento to become salaried employees, they were required to work outside the company for a minimum of three years. This requirement was one of several “rules” the company established in the 1990s to ensure equal expectations and fair opportunities among employees who are family members and non-family members, Lou said.

Family members are also required to earn various degrees to assume higher roles – any salaried position requires a bachelor’s degree, a technical degree is needed for a production role, and an officer position requires a master’s degree. In addition, Gentines who are sons or daughters of current employees are required to work in separate departments from their parents.

Adhering to these rules along the way, Louie worked his way up through the company. He served in managerial and executive roles across various departments, including production, procurement and marketing. For three years prior to his current role, he served as president and chief customer officer. 

“The move around the company, even going back to when I was washing trucks, really helped me gain an appreciation for what we do at Sargento, but most importantly, it gave me exposure and allowed me to build relationships with many members of the Sargento family,” Louie said. “In a family-owned business, I think it’s very important for the owners to have a great appreciation for all the employees do.”

When Louie joined Sargento in 2000, he immediately knew he wanted to one day lead the company, he said. With guidance from Sargento’s outside board of directors and a family business consultant, a succession plan was put in place, and in 2005, the board confirmed Louie’s potential to work his way up to CEO.

Sargento’s leadership spent the next eight years transitioning from its second to its third generation. Louie gradually became more involved with executive-level negotiations and business decisions as Lou started to pass down various new responsibilities.

“The eight years of transition helped me a lot and it helped the broader Sargento family see me take on additional roles,” Louie said. “I think it also helped my father transition into his current role as chairman because he understood how I operated, how my team was operating and it gave him the comfort that the Sargento family was going to be in good hands.”

Sargento established its outside board of directors a couple years before Lou took over. It is comprised of four Gentine family members who don’t work at Sargento and four non-family member corporate executives, Louie said. He said as an unbiased and neutral entity, the board was charged, among other tasks, with determining both Leonard’s and Lou’s successors.

“It takes a bit of the emotion out of ‘my son or daughter should get it’ or ‘somebody else’s son or daughter should get it,’” Louie said. “You rely on the people who you are trusting to represent the company and make sure it stays on the right track.”

The board weighs in on other company matters, such as strategic planning, annual budgets and executive compensation, Lou said. Both Lou and Louie touted the role the outside board can play in a family business.

“When you bring in people from the outside that have a breadth of knowledge beyond what we have here at the organization, it leads to better decision-making and better overall corporate governance,” Lou said. “If it was just family shareholders or employees working in the business, making those decisions a board makes, we didn’t feel we would have as objective of conversations on different issues.”

‘Real cheese people’

Today, Sargento sells its natural cheese products through its two main business arms: Consumer Products – packaged cheese sold in the dairy section of grocery stores – and Food Service & Ingredients – wholesale or bulk quantities used in restaurants.

Sourcing cheese from dairy producers located around the state and across the U.S., Sargento procures and packages the cheese before shipping its products off to grocery stores and restaurant chains throughout all 50 states.

“From a national branded standpoint, Sargento has the most variety of natural cheese products in the dairy case for consumers to buy,” Louie said.

According to Sargento’s website, natural cheese contains four ingredients – pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt and enzymes – and is trimmed, finely ground and melted in kettles. Process cheese, on the other hand, only needs to be 51 percent cheese, and is made by pasteurizing and blending natural cheeses with other ingredients such as cream, artificial color, acids, water and emulsifying agents.

The company in 2015 diversified its consumer product line with the popular Balanced Breaks, and again last year with Sweet Balanced Breaks, which are snack containers featuring cheese cubes, roasted nuts, dried fruits and chocolate. Ted Balistreri, owner of Milwaukee-area grocery chain Sendik’s Food Market, said the product is a favorite among Sendik’s shoppers.

“As Sargento innovates and comes up with new products, customer adoption is usually very strong, meaning the customers trust the brand to deliver excellent food for their families,” Balistreri said.

Balanced Breaks are among the 123 Sargento products available at Sendik’s 17 locations. The partnership between the two family-owned, Wisconsin-based companies dates back to the 1970s, when Sendik’s first started carrying Sargento’s products, Balistreri said.

“They have set a great example for other family businesses to follow in terms of growing the business to benefit not only the family, but the larger community,” Balistreri said.

No pressure

Louie’s lifelong involvement with the company, and current position as CEO, was never driven by familial pressure, he said. When Louie was young, his dad would often bring home samples of Sargento’s new products or show Louie and his siblings its new commercials. But Sargento operations were never discussed at the dinner table, making the company seem distant to Louie as he grew up.

“My dad and his brothers, brother-in-law and sister really did a good job of separating the company and family business from family life,” he said. “Neither my cousins nor I really knew a lot about what went on at Sargento.”

Lou’s experience was different. Growing up, he and his four siblings were well aware of their father’s desire for their involvement in the company. As a result, Lou took a different approach when raising children of his own.

“My perspective as a parent was that I wanted my kids to pursue their dreams and if that included being a part of Sargento that’s great, but it might include other (careers),” Lou said.

Louie is one of just two third-generation Gentines who decided to join the family business. Executive vice president of operations Mike McEvoy married into the Gentine family when he married Louie’s cousin.

His father’s approach, along with the separation of family time and business operations, took the pressure off the third generation, Louie said. They could explore and discover their passions without a sense of guilt or obligation to the company, and when the time came, they could map out their own career paths.

As a father of four, Louie says he will use the same approach because someday, the company will transition yet again to the next generation.

Beginning in eighth grade, fourth generation family members take part in a Sargento education and career-planning program the company rolled out three years ago. It’s an effort to gradually expose the younger generations to various parts of the company, from Sargento’s history, to its production plant operations, to its marketing strategies, Louie said.

“I didn’t have anything like that, but we felt this was important, since none of them really had an opportunity to get to know my grandfather or my grandmother, for them to understand what we are all about, and what we do and how we operate,” Louie said.

Leonard is survived by 25 great-grandchildren, currently ranging in age from 22 years to 6 months old.

Sargento Timeline

1949 – Leonard Gentine breaks into the cheese industry by opening the Plymouth Cheese Counter.

1953 – Leonard Gentine and Joe Sartori co-found Sargento Cheese Co. Inc. It becomes the first company to provide grocery stores with pre-cut natural cheese.

1955 – Sargento rolls out the first pre-cut and sliced natural cheese and the first vacuum-sealed packaging for cheese products.

1956 – Sargento purchases the former Elkhart Lake Canning Co. building to use as its first permanent production facility.

1958 – Sargento produces the first packaged shredded cheese.

1965 – Joe Sartori sells his share of the company, leaving Leonard and the Gentine family as Sargento’s sole owners.

1973 – The first Sargento commercial airs on television.

1981 – Lou Gentine takes over as CEO and Leonard transitions to chairman.

1986 – Sargento introduces Zip-Pak, the first re-sealable packaging for its products.

1991 – Butch, Larry, Ann, Lou, Lee, Delores and Leonard Gentine after Leonard is honored with the National Cheese Institute Laureate Award.

2006 – One hundred Sargento employees won $208 million in the Wisconsin Lottery and most of them still showed up to work the next day.

2012 – Louie with his parents Michele and Lou Gentine after Lou is honored with the National Cheese Institute Laureate Award.

2013 – Louie Gentine takes over as CEO.

2015 – Sargento launches its Balanced Breaks snack packs, featuring cheese cubes, nuts and dried fruit.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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