Editor's Plate: The New Wave in Eating

Dec. 8, 2014
WhiteWave, our Processor of the Year, see a future filled with organic, plant-based foods.

I first met Gregg Engles in 1998 when he was heading a dairy company called Suiza Foods. He was an outsider in what still was an old-boy network of dairy executives. We met at an annual meeting of the dairy association, so as a journalist, I was a suspect outsider too. With no one else offering him a chair, I invited him to sit with me.

By 1998, these dairy executives no longer owned or milked cows but probably had done so at least once in their childhoods. The cows in question belonged to their fathers or their grandfathers, who started the dairy company this second or third generation now ran.

Here comes Engles, 20 or 30 years their junior, a Yale law graduate who had just recently left Wall Street for, unbelievably, the milk business. He thought he could bring financial discipline to a category in which per capita consumption of milk was on a multi-year decline (which continues today) and where capacity utilization rates were down near 50 percent. He had way too many strikes against him. A nicer suit than anybody else's, too.

But there he was, the head of a $6 billion dairy company that seemed to be growing every day. Growing because he was buying out those underutilized, undercapitalized, family-run dairies. He also cozied up to the biggest cooperative of milk producers, a relationship that traditionally had been adversarial. He was not warmly received by the dairy processing execs. He seemed glad to sit with me.

It wasn't long before he built Suiza into America's biggest dairy, surpassing venerable old Dean Foods. Then he engineered a merger with Dean Foods. Despite keeping the Dean name, Suiza and Engles were clearly dominant, and Engles immediately took the title of CEO and said he would be chairman, too, when Howard Dean retired, as planned.

I guess he took Dean Foods as far as he thought he could because he took some of the company's prized but non-mainstream possessions and split them off into a new company in 2012. It's that company, WhiteWave Foods, that we honor in this issue as our Processor of the Year.

"Changing the way the world eats – for the better," is the company motto – but that's a slight exaggeration. More accurately, WhiteWave is meeting, even anticipating, the way the world eats. At least the new ways that a growing segment of consumers are eating. I don't entirely get it, but some of my kids do.

Questioning traditional dairy products, one has a refrigerator stocked with soymilk. Another buys only organic milk. Both are buying more organic products every day.

Do you have a foothold in Europe? WhiteWave does. How about a joint venture in China? A recent WhiteWave investment.

Those are some of the interesting deals engineered by Engles. But WhiteWave still looks more like some eccentric's collection of memorabilia than a focused company. For a two-year-old company, the WhiteWave story already has been fascinating, and that's part of the reason we chose it But I get a feeling the really interesting part has just begun.

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