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Gentine, Lou

Gentine, Lou

Career
Sidelights
Sources

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sargento Foods

B orn Louis Peter Gentine in 1947, in Plymouth, WI; son of Leonard A. (a business executive) and Dolores A. (Becker) Gentine; married Michele Ann Miller, December 27, 1969; children: Thomas Anthony, Louis Peter II, Kelly Marie. Education: University of Notre Dame, BBA, 1970.

Addresses: Office—Sargento Foods, Inc., 1 Persnick-ety Pl., Plymouth, WI 53073-3544.

Career

P rice Waterhouse, Hartford, CT, staff accountant, 1970-73; Sargento Cheese (later known as Sar-gento, Inc., and Sargento Foods, Inc.), Plymouth, WI, controller, 1973-74, vice president of finance, 1974-77, executive vice president of administration, 1977-81, president, 1981—, chairman and chief executive officer, c. 1995—.

Member: Board, First Wisconsin National Bank of Sheboygan; board, National Cheese Institute; board, Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee; board, Oldenburg Group; vice chairman of the International Dairy Foods Association, 2002; chairman, National Cheese Institute, 2002; chairman, International Dairy Foods Association, 2003; chairman, National Cheese Institute, 2003.

Sidelights

T he chairman and chief executive officer of Sar-gento Foods, Inc., Lou Gentine is the second generation of his family to run the cheese and cheese-related products producer. Taking the helm of Sargento after his father, Gentine oversaw innovation and expansion of the company. It remained one of the foremost producers of retail cheese products in the United States for decades and also sold its wares worldwide.

Born on December 18, 1947, in Plymouth, Wisconsin, Gentine was the third son of Leonard and Dolores Gentine. His father initially worked in the funeral business, then ran a cheese shop and mail-order gift company, the Plymouth Cheese Counter, before co-founding Sargento Cheese Company in 1953 with cheese maker Joseph Sartori. The company initially focused on converting bulk natural cheeses, especially those not usually available in supermarkets, and selling them there. With innovative production and marketing—such as introducing packaged pre-shredded and sliced cheeses to consumers in 1958—Sargento became quite successful.

Gentine attended the University of Notre Dame, where he studied accounting. After earning his BBA in accounting in 1970, he moved east to work as a staff accountant at Price Waterhouse in Hartford, Connecticut. During his tenure at Price Waterhouse, Gentine also joined the United States Air Reserve. He continued his service to his country after leaving Price Waterhouse in 1973. (Gentine left the reserves as a first lieutenant in 1977.)

From the first, Gentine knew his time at Price Waterhouse was limited. He told Steve Prestegard of Marketplace Magazine, “I had all the intention of going back to [Sargento]. Each of my brothers and my sister were involved in the company in one job or another, and I think we were all interested in the growth of the company.”

In 1973, Gentine returned to Plymouth and joined Sargento as a controller. Within a year, he was promoted to vice president of finance. After three years in this post, Gentine was named the executive vice president of administration. In 1981, Gentine took over as president of Sargento, the holding company for four divisions (Sargento Cheese, Sargento Food Service, Duralam, and Special Food Groups) of the company.

Like his father before him, Gentine emphasized innovation. In addition to introducing such products as a Fancy Shredded Cheese line in 1981, string cheese in 1983, and Nacho Shredded Cheese in 1984, Sargento was the first company to use zippered re-sealable packaging for its shredded and sliced cheese in 1986. Sargento was the only company to have zippered resealable packaging for several years, though other companies soon copied their idea.

Because of such innovations, Sargento was the number-two brand of natural cheese in the United States by 1991. Not content to rest on its laurels, the company continued to add new products, such as reduced fat cheeses in 1991. Sargento also underwent significant expansion, including building several new plants in the early 1990s. In addition, Gen-tine decided to expand its international market; in 1996 it created a division to focus on international sales.

With the success of such innovation and expansion, Gentine took on more executive responsibilities at Sargento. He became chief executive officer in the mid1990s, and later added the title of chairman of the board in the years after his father’s death in 1996. By 1999, Sargento Foods counted both retail and industrial consumers and annual sales of $375 million.

As the leader of Sargento, Gentine emphasized the importance of family. Sargento had been owned by members of the Gentine family and their stockholders since 1965 when Leonard Gentine had bought out his partner. Like his father, Gentine also looked on his nearly 1,000 employees as family. He supported worker-focused initiatives intended to benefit the local community. In addition, Gentine offered tuition reimbursement for all employees who decided to continue their formal education.

Gentine told Dairy Foods’ Donna Berry: “My father always said that in order to be successful, you have to surround yourself with good people and treat them like family, and we’ve lived up to that philosophy. Our employees are an extension of our family and they share our passion for cheese and our love for succeeding as an industry leader. We consider our employees to be our greatest assets and offer them as many opportunities as possible to grow and prosper.”

In addition to running Sargento, Gentine served on the board of directors of several companies, including the First Wisconsin National Bank of Sheboygan, the National Cheese Institute, Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee, and the Oldenburg Group. Gentine also served on industry-related councils. In 2002, he was elected the vice chairman of the International Dairy Foods Association as well as the chairman of the National Cheese Institute. Gentine was elected chairman of both the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Cheese Institute in 2003.

Though Gentine participated in many such activities, his primary focus remained his company. In 2003, he began appearing in ads for Sargento. Gen-tine became Sargento’s public face and voice in a series of television and radio commercials. He also began appearing on billboards and the back of Sar-gento cheese packages sold at the retail level. The move was made in part to increase the company’s then flat sales. By 2006, sales had increased to $550 million annually.

Despite some ups and downs, Gentine believed Sar-gento had been influential in increasing the consumption of cheese products among Americans. He told Berry of Dairy Foods, “Since my father started the company, we’ve focused on giving consumers what they want—the best-tasting cheese for making meals and snacks their families will enjoy. Per capita cheese consumption has practically quadrupled in the past 50 years, and we believe the company has had a lot to do with that.”

Sources

Books

Standard & Poor’s Register of Directors and Executives, McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Who’s Who in America, 46th ed., Marquis Who’s Who, 2004.

Periodicals

Brandweek, September 29, 2003, p. 12.

Cheese Market News, February 14, 1992, p. 1.

Dairy Field, November 2002, p. 12; January 2004, p. 11.

Dairy Foods, August 1, 2003.

Dairy Today, January 2, 2006.

Marketplace Magazine, June 22, 1999, p. 12.

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), August 20, 1996, p. 4B.

Online

“Sargento’s President and CEO, Lou Gentine, to Speak at Concordia’s Business Leadership Series,” Concordia University Wisconsin, http://www.cuw.edu/News_Events/media/business_leadership_fall2007.html (November 4, 2007).

—A. Petrusso

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