Schwan’s new leader embraces company’s heritage

MARSHALL – When the home of a major company is a small, rural city, rumors about the future of the business have a tendency to swarm like mosquitoes on a muggy August afternoon.

The Schwan Food Co. is no exception, and while talk and speculation about the company uprooting will likely always exist, its new CEO, Dimitrios Smyrnios, told the Independent on Wednesday he feels no need to respond to it.

“The heritage of the company from a Schwan’s standpoint is something that drew me to Schwan’s,” said Smyrnios, who replaced Greg Flack on Oct. 7. “If you look at what a young man did in 1952 to create the business that it is today, it’s pretty special. This is our birthplace, and this is where the heritage exists. (Schwan leaving Marshall) would be clearly a rumor that I wouldn’t even acknowledge, to be honest.”

While still headquartered in Marshall, where the company was started as a one-man operation by Marvin Schwan, it’s no secret that the company has, over time, established more of a presence in larger cities, specifically Bloomington, which is home to Schwan’s Consumer Brands Inc. It is moves like that that can raise eyebrows among residents in a small, tight-knit city and its neighboring communities, but Smyrnios clearly appreciates the company’s humble beginnings and the connection it has with its customers, even in an age when that connection is lessened because of technology and an ever-increasing desire from the public to buy online.

“The consumers are key to any successful business,” said Smyrnios, who began his career in the food industry, coincidentally, as a route driver fresh out of the University of Wyoming in 1986. “Consumers want great food, great value, and they do value convenience. So some consumers will say that buying online is convenient, but there’s also the other people who want that relationship that exists with many companies.”

Holding on to that personal touch while offering products online is a challenge, Smyrnios said, but a welcomed one.

“That’s why you’re in business, to meet the needs of the consumer,”?he said. “That’s what great companies do – they meet the need of that consumer. Where your birthplace is, you have a special feeling, a special heritage, so I think it’s important that we remember that.”

Marshall is home not only to Schwan headquarters but also to offices for home delivery, food service, manufacturing and logistics, four Schwan’s Global Supply Chain Inc. plants, a Research and Development Center and training and development headquarters.

Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said being home to Schwan is important for Marshall because Schwan is the type of company that offers the kind of diversity in employment that some large companies might be able to match. And for the corporation, he said there’s an understated value in the connection between the business and the community.

“I think Schwan’s employment base in Marshall is much more complex than the average person on the street might have appreciation for,” Byrnes said. “Overall, there’s a large presence here; it’s not just one type of job they have here, which is really the value of having a company that has its headquarters and manufacturing in the same community.”

Byrnes, who said private sector employment in Marshall overall has steadily increased during the last five years, said Schwan also benefits from realizing a true corporate identity, which ultimately plays a factor in employee retention. In short, being headquartered in a smaller community such as Marshall has its advantages.

“They have 1,600, 1,700 jobs here; there are 100 or so jobs in the metro area which, as mayor, I wish those jobs were in Marshall, but do we have any control over that? Absolutely not,” said Byrnes. “But you have to look at everything that goes along with corporate identity – the loyalty of employees who choose to live in a region where they have quality of life, a great educational system for their kids, safety, housing options, they don’t have to deal with congestion – all reasons why people choose to live in southwest Minnesota.”

Byrnes also said having Schwan in Marshall benefits not only the city itself but the region as a whole whose population of people between ages 30 and 50 is on the rise while the overall population in rural Minnesota is on the decline. Those are the people, Byrnes noted, who are at the time of their lives when they are looking to become established in their careers and place a high value on quality of life.

“It’s not only the largest employer in Marshall, it’s the largest in southwest Minnesota,” he said. “It’s important to all of southwest Minnesota to have Schwan’s in Marshall.”

Smyrnios hasn’t spent too much in time in Marshall yet but can sense a certain small-town pride exists.

“People are very, very friendly – that’s one of the positives of a smaller town: You get to know everybody, it’s more like a family than it would be if there was 10 million people,”?he said.

Smyrnios said he values transparency and considers it part of his role as CEO to have a presence in the community and with Schwan customers.