At the Helm: Neal Schuman

By Patricia Olsen

A few minutes wiith the president and CEO of Schuman Cheese, Fairfield, N.J.

Generation of family ownership: I am the third generation. My grandfather started the business with my father and uncle.

Company revenues: Just under $700 million.

Number of employees: 1,300.

First job at this company: Every summer during college I worked in European cheese factories, learning cheese production and the cheese trade, apprentice-style. I did it for seven weeks out of the 10-week summer vacation and then traveled around Europe and learned cross-cultural differences, which was invaluable.

Most memorable thing I learned from my father: To trust my instincts and that even if you make a marginal decision, through hard work and applied intelligence it will become a good decision.

Most memorable thing I learned from my mother: Perseverance. It would be interesting to study spouses of entrepreneurs because they play such a vital role, from helping transition the next generation to being the “glue.” My mother saw the start of the company, she was there when vendors came to the house for dinner, and she traveled with my father for business.

Best thing about this job: Working with people who are passionate about making our family business better.

Our greatest success: Our ability to maintain the delivery of the highest-quality cheeses to the marketplace for four generations through partnerships with our vendors and customers.

Best advice I ever got: Know what you don’t know.

Quote from our company’s mission statement: Our mission is to enhance everyday eating experiences with the highest-quality cheese, and we’re led by core values, including honesty and integrity, commitment, pride, adaptability and innovation, and leadership.

On my wall: Intermixed with family photos is a photo of our senior leadership team from 2017 when we won the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

One of our greatest accomplishments: Being a vital company that is adaptive, creative and innovative, with an unwavering regard for quality.

Best thing about working in a family business: The pride that you get from continuing a tradition that enhances people’s lives, while sharing the knowledge of prior generations with the youngest generation.

Advice for other family business leaders: Trust your instincts. Regarding the next generation, let them be mentored and coached by someone other than you, because as parents we may not have the perfect prism through which to view our kids.

On a day off I like to … be active outside with skiing, golf or tennis.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: We were the 2018 Employee Giving Partner for St. Jude’s. We also support Susan G. Komen and breast cancer programs, both educational and fundraising, and we’re active with food banks in the communities we work in.

Book I think every family business leader should read: There are so many that conflict. I would advise family business owners to avoid “flavor-of-the-month” books regarding management style. Read many and select what they believe is the best approach for their situation.

I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s shadow when … my father was in his 70s and we were sitting in a couple of meetings and he asked me for life counsel. The company still respected and honored him and found him vital, but our internal conversations had changed. There’s a transition when the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.

Future succession plans: My three children are all in key positions, but it’s too soon to have those conversations. We have succession planning for every key job, which is a regular exercise because everyone in the company gets older every day, not just your family. We look at it holistically. We’ve taken care of estate planning, but we haven’t defined ascendancy into certain roles because my children are still early in their evolution in the company. 

Words I live by: Do the right thing.

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November/December 2018

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