Family Business: Schuman Cheese
Neal Schuman maintains his family’s tradition of being the best and doing the right thing at Schuman Cheese.
Family roots run deep at Schuman Cheese, a fourth-generation business that has thrived with CEO Neal Schuman at its helm for more than 30 years.
Schuman credits his predecessors with establishing the company’s foundation of values that never faltered, including bedrock commitments to quality, integrity and innovation. It’s these values, he says, that have propelled the company’s significant growth since its start in 1945 as a cheese importer to its current iteration as a diversified cheesemaker, processor and importer. Still entirely family-owned, Schuman Cheese hangs its hat on an established reputation as a creator of award-winning cheese and inventive products.
“We always wanted to bring something new to the market, whether it’s different packaging, products or services,” Schuman says. “We had to be innovative and nimble and quick and focused on things that would make us different from the giants of the industry.”
Schuman’s grandfather Arthur Schuman, a salesman at an Italian food and cheese business, started the company in New York City with his two sons. As the World War II-era embargo on Italian products lifted, the Schumans aimed to share their passion for European cheeses with Americans.
In its early years, the company struggled with a lack of capital, fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship and creativity. To expand its sources of cheese, Schuman Cheese built partnerships with Italian emigrants in Argentina and Uruguay. Jerome Schuman, Schuman’s father, guided them on ramping up production. Schuman Cheese ultimately became the largest US importer of South American cheeses.
Neal Schuman joined Schuman Cheese after college in 1972, focusing on expanding the company’s imports of French cheeses. He, too, branched the company into different directions, introducing new products such as condiments and licensing Schuman cheeses to restaurants in the 1980s.
Working 90 hours a week on the company’s cheese and fledgling restaurant wings, Schuman realized this pace and scope wasn’t tenable. The business’s diversification was becoming a distraction. So in 1986, when he took over as President, he refocused the company on its core competency of global cheese imports and production.
Key to this strategy was the acquisition of a Polish manufacturer, which enabled Schuman Cheese to enter the processing, food service and food ingredient sectors without having to build facilities. Though they’d ventured into other product categories, “we needed to protect our core business,” Schuman says. “We evolved from a broker and bulk cheese trader to a company that does importing and processing, with increased sales in our food ingredient business.”
In the 1990s, Schuman drew on his industry insight to predict that the US faced a looming oversupply of dairy. Hedging that this might cause a shift to increased domestic cheese production, Schuman prompted the company to launch stateside manufacturing. Between 1998 and 2009, Schuman Cheese acquired or started four plants, saving extensively on importing and transportation costs.
The Schuman Cheese legacy of quality has been vital, as has its commitment to innovation. Schuman highlights its single-serve snacks; Yellow Door hand-rubbed fontina cheeses; and Cello Whisps, a crisp made entirely from cheese that won a World Championship Cheese Contest 2016 Best In Class award. “We stand for the best quality you can buy, regardless of what segment we’re in,” he adds.
Schuman’s recipe for success led to a golden period of growth during the past decade: an average of more than 10% annually.
Another critical element, Schuman says, stems from his family owning the entire company, which allows management to take the long view of operations and be responsive to customers and vendors.
“Part of the advantage of being a private company is we’re much more aligned with what’s best for us in the long term than what we have to accomplish now,” Schuman says. “We try to do things right, knowing it will work out, rather than rushing to make it great or get rid of it really fast.”
Schuman couldn’t be prouder that the fourth generation of his family is actively involved with the company, including his three children. Together they are striving to bring aboard the fifth generation and keep Schuman Cheese in the family.
He aims to continue treating all 1,200 employees like family and nurturing Schuman’s close-knit, team environment. To get there, Schuman emphasizes giving people the training and development they need to succeed and encouraging all employees to think like entrepreneurs.
In the company’s 72 years, Schuman Cheese has never strayed from its original goal to bring the best cheese to the American market. By keeping this passion burning and staying on top of — and ahead of — industry trends, Schuman has primed his company to continue thriving for many generations to come.
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