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3 Open Minutes with Jerry Kozak

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 10 December 2013

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Jerry Kozak joined National Milk Producers Federation in 1997 as its CEO after previous work for the New Jersey Health Department, the Federal Food and Drug Administration and the International Dairy Foods Association.

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At the end of the year, he will retire and turn over leadership to incoming CEO Jim Mulhern. Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley interviewed Kozak about his decade-and-a-half tenure as leader of the Arlington, Virginia-based trade association.

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Ten years from now, what do you hope people will remember about Jerry Kozak’s contribution to the dairy industry?

KOZAK: I think your legacy is the staff you leave behind and your family. I hope people will remember the fact that I was committed to helping the dairy industry grow, and that I was successful at eliminating much of the fragmentation that existed in the producer community when I came into National Milk.

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You mentioned your family, Jerry. How have they held up over the past 15-plus years?


KOZAK:
There were years I traveled more than 200 days. It was quite an extensive travel schedule, and my wife of 41 years tended to our daughters, took care of the house and all those things I couldn’t do while I traveled.

I’ve been fortunate to have pretty high-profile jobs since I got out of college – but in order to do what I did, which was to make a full commitment to our membership, you sacrifice on a personal level.

We just completed our annual meeting, and I gave a very personal speech there because I’ve had such a close relationship with the farmers I felt I owed it to them to give them an answer as to why I really made my decision to step down.

I’m 63 and I’m – thank God – in good health at the moment. And I still believe I’m at the top of my game in what I do, but I explained at our annual meeting that the personal sacrifices ultimately led to my decision to retire.

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What will you be doing in your retirement?


KOZAK:
I want to say nothing, but that won’t work. I like to fish. I’m going to teach my six grandkids how to fish and spend more time with them. I want to teach them how to play guitar. My brother and I were both musicians early on, and I had to abandon that for my career, so I want to spend more time on that.

Candidly, I’ve never had time because of my travel schedule and work to give back to the community. We’re relocating to South Carolina, so there’ll be many opportunities for me to help out there.

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What do you wish you could have accomplished during your tenure that is still undone?


KOZAK:
That’s a hard one for me to answer because I wanted to ensure we had a highly successful, seamless transition planned. That was my highest priority.

Obviously the first issue is the farm bill, but I hope by the time you run this article, that we’ll have successfully concluded the farm bill. I think it will get done. And I am still the main coordinator for our organization trying to get that accomplished.

I’ve worked pretty hard this past year on immigration reform, and as you know, we were successful on the Senate side. We played a key role in the Agricultural Workforce Coalition; we successfully negotiated out an ag package that was included in the Senate bill. And I was hoping to see that pass, but obviously it is stymied like everything else on the House side, and our work will continue next year.

Finally, I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to bring about Federal Order reform. Our organization believes in the Federal Order program; it’s beneficial to farmers. It also protects farmers from some of the things that could happen in the marketplace without federal milk orders.

As a staff, we worked pretty hard to develop, I thought, a fairly comprehensive package on Federal Order reform. It was probably a little bit more than people could grasp given the magnitude of what we were doing on the Dairy Security Act, and it didn’t get done. But much of the work is still there, and I hope it will continue on.

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Tell me how you’ll still be involved in the CWT program next year.


KOZAK:
I have agreed at least for 2014 to oversee the CWT export program and manage the aspects of the CWT civil lawsuit we have been dealing with. I’ve committed to seeing those two things through for 2014 and will be starting the transition in 2014 to others in that program.

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Take us inside day-to-day operations. What’s the hardest part of leading NMPF?


KOZAK:
I think the hardest part of leading the organization is that we have a vast producer community. The good news is that producers are fully engaged in all the activities that we do. It’s part of their lives, it’s part of their businesses, so they are actively involved.

I think the challenge of a trade association like ours is that you first have to influence the membership to all pull in the same direction. You have to present the facts, you have to be a strong leader to get them to agree and you have to influence them to come up with policies and positions.

Then once you do that we have to influence someone else, whether it’s Congress or some regulatory agency. That’s a hard task. If you’re running your own company, you have the luxury of saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do.

Here’s how we’re going to implement it and get it done.” In a trade association, you don’t really run anything. You have to influence your members, then you have to influence somebody else to act. That is the hardest part of the job.

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Which were you better at: Influencing members or influencing others?


KOZAK:
I thought I was good at both! But all kidding aside, I think one of my biggest strengths was creating unity within National Milk. When I came, the organization was pretty fragmented. It was dysfunctional.

There was a lot of distrust among our co-ops. My highest priority was bringing about unity so that we could speak with one voice, and I think we did that. And because we did that we were very successful at influencing people.

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What won’t you miss about the job?


KOZAK:
There really isn’t much about the job that I was unhappy about. In fact, that has been a challenge of explaining my decision to leave because I’ve been extremely happy; this has been the best job I ever had. To walk away from it was a difficult task.

I won’t miss dealing with our dysfunctional Congress. I think that has been my highest frustration this past two years. We’ve been able to bring a lot of issues together for the producer community, and then when we get to Capitol Hill, we’re stymied and nothing moves.

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Who in the industry will you miss working with the most?


KOZAK:
My staff. I have had the luxury of hiring everybody who works here. I think I have the best staff of any organization in the country in terms of talent and commitment.

When you look at the average tenure of our staff here at National Milk, it’s well over 10 years. That’s a pretty significant statement that means two things: I must be doing something right, and people are committed to and enjoying their jobs.

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If you had to do something differently and change how you did it from the way that it actually happened, what would you go back in time and re-do?

KOZAK: Nothing. My attitude has always been: Make good decisions, make them quick, and then once you’ve made a decision have full confidence and never look back. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m at peace with myself as I move on.

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A high-profile leader seeking change can be polarizing. Do you feel your leadership polarized the industry? Why or why not?

KOZAK: I think it was the opposite. I think the way I went about things was that I tried to bring forth unity. First of all, in the producer community, the fragmentation that existed 16 years ago, on a regional, state and local basis, isn’t there much anymore.

The way we minimized it was we created policies and programs that impacted all dairy producers in the same way. We fought against the small-versus-large-herd mentality. We fought against regionalism.

I think that if you look at the Dairy Security Act, as an example, it treats all farmers equally. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a small farmer or a large farmer, you get the same benefits.

I never felt like I was polarizing; I felt I was proactive. If you try to please everyone, you’ll get nothing done. Nobody gets 100 percent of what they want. You will always have some small segment that at times doesn’t agree with you.

And that’s part of the problem with Congress now. You see it right now in the House. There are 70 or 80 Republicans who are Tea Party members, and they’re going to vote against everything we propose.

But we never worried about that. We decided this is what we were going to do and once the board agreed to it, we acted, even if there was some dissension.

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When you brief incoming CEO Jim Mulhern about how to work with and speak to dairy producers, what advice will you have for him?

KOZAK: Jim comes with a highly skilled background in dairy cooperatives and dairy producers. He was the ideal candidate for the job. I’m not providing him advice. He has to manage National Milk just like I managed it – unencumbered.

All I’ve tried to do in transition is to make sure he was up-to-speed with our activities. I tried to give him insight into our leadership and our membership. I could tell him who’s a Giants fan and who’s a Steelers fan, for example.

I’ve tried to make sure he was fully knowledgeable about our financial situation. I’ve tried to provide him insight into the staff as to what their talents, capabilities and, sometimes, flaws are.

He’ll have to do what I did, and that is reach out and be a participant in the co-op meetings and other kinds of meetings out in the community. But as far as how he speaks to them once he’s out there, he doesn’t need any advice from me.

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What role did you play in Jim’s hiring?


KOZAK:
When I sat down with our chairman and I told him that I was not going to renew my contract, we talked about how we would handle succession. I’m a person who plans out pretty methodically everything I do.

So I took an executive succession-planning course offered here in town. I then set myself to reading a number of books and tons of articles on how to successfully implement a succession plan. Trade associations notoriously have been pretty bad in how they’ve planned succession.

We concluded that, rather than try to use a search committee, perhaps we could look inward to see if there were any viable candidates that could be considered for the position.

Search committees are costly and often result in identifying somebody outside of the dairy industry. That has not been a very successful template for co-ops or other organizations.

So I was asked to develop a short list of people after we determined a skill set and the qualifications that potential candidates would need. Jim’s name came forward.

I recommended that the officers interview him; they did. They were quite impressed, and from that point on, it was concluded that he would be a great candidate.

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What must the dairy industry do to maintain a bright future?

KOZAK: I think we have to be proactive. I’ll use the FARM Program as an example. We can’t wait until our customers tell us they want this or that. We can’t wait until the consuming public thinks there’s a problem before we fix it. We have to always be ahead of our customers and our consumers.

Also, we have to do all the right things. As I’ve said so many times in my speeches, doing the right thing is often very hard, but it’s the right thing to do.

We have to demonstrate credibility and integrity in everything we do, and we have to make a greater commitment to providing products that consumers want. And we have to make a greater commitment to the global marketplace, which I think we’re on the right track to do.

So, whatever it is, if it’s developing new products or being innovative, as they say, we need to be proactive. If it’s developing policies that will work better than the old policies, we have to be proactive.

If there are social and media issues that we have to deal with, we need to be proactive. I think that’s the key issue to keep the dairy industry bright, because we have a lot of competition out there. PD

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Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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