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Winning in the dairy business, what is it … really?

Bruce Vande Steeg for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 March 2021

I was walking around my business one day, and I pondered this thought: “Why am I doing this?” By “this,” I meant the business I was engaged in – automated car washes. In addition to my dairy consulting business, I had this side business operating automated car washes.

My next thought was, “How do I explain my ‘why’ to my staff, and how do they buy into it?” You see, at the time the only reason I could come up with that I had for this particular business was to make money, and more of it. You’re probably saying, “Duh – isn’t that what businesses are for?”



While making money in business is not a bad reason to be in business, and actually it is a good reason, it was not enough to inspire me, and it certainly was not enough to inspire others to come work for me running a car wash.

I wrestled with this question: Isn’t making money the objective of business? It seems we are told this regularly. Wall Street is focused on returns to the investor. Owners spend a lot of time looking at P&L’s and balance sheets. Your banker, and mine, are certainly concerned with returns on investment and profitability. So why did it sound empty and non-fulfilling to me to say: “I’m in business to make money”?

I believe it is because we are created for so much more. We all want purpose in our life. We are relational at our core. Deep inside of our being, we have a desire to leave a legacy, to make life better for our kids, to make our communities better places to live, to provide good food for others. We cannot shake it; it is essential to our being.

Consider what it’s like to live with a lack of purpose. That person retires with no plan and nothing meaningful to do – and shortly thereafter passes away. What they lived for is gone. Why get up in the morning if you’re living like that? Our why and our purpose are highly connected. Without them, we wander aimlessly. No target to aim for, no goal. Without purpose, there is no winning.

Back to my own conundrum. What was I to do with my business; what was my why, my purpose or how I win? Interestingly, I could not determine one other thing than a return on my investment. So I kept the car wash for a short time and sold it. I determined I could make the same money elsewhere.


I desired a business that would have purpose for me. One that got me up in the morning, that I could be excited about. I figured out that if I, as the owner, was excited about it, then that energy, that meaning, could be transferred to my staff. This was and still is important to me. I want others to have purpose in their work; I want a high-performing team. I did not want my staff to come to work because it was a job.

People who show up to a job show up for the money only. Again, making a living is not bad, nor wrong. But these type of staff members are not engaged, they do not care, they have no loyalty (no fault of their own), they leave for “x” cents more per hour. Then what happens to such a business? It has a higher-than-it-should turnover rate. It has poor productivity. It has lackluster teamwork. It lacks innovation. It suffers with poorer-than-it-should profitability. Last time I checked my pulse, all these raise my blood pressure. All these leave me with less peace in my life. In my opinion, the money is not worth the high blood pressure and a lack of peace.

Another problem with the “make more money” concept when it comes to your employees is that they do not often get to participate in business profitability. “They get a paycheck,” you might say. “Isn’t that participating in the business’s profitability?” Yes, they get a paycheck, but they get that if the business is doing well or doing poorly. Maybe they get a small raise if the business is doing well or no raise if it is not. However, either scenario does little to engage them deeply at work.

So what should a business owner do? You entered business to make money, to provide for your family, to be able to retire. Absolutely. However, think back a bit further. You could have started any business, gone into any field of your choice. You chose this one. Why? This one stirred something in your soul, in your heart, in your mind. What was it?

Here’s another way to think about it. You get up, go to work and an idea pops into your head. You explore it, think about it, engage with it. What was it that gets your mind going? Why did you take the mental energy to ponder it? Remember this: What you think about when you don’t have to think about anything is where your true passion lies. What makes you think about your work, your business? Why do you enjoy it?

For some of us in agriculture, our why is to leave a legacy or to provide a high-quality food product for people to enjoy. For some, it is to work with your hands, with cows or to do what you do best. Whatever yours is, take some time (I know time is rare) and contemplate it. Knowing your why keeps you from wandering aimlessly, missing the target. Knowing your why allows you to express it to your staff, your family, your vendors and your customers. It allows them to understand your business, to buy into what you are trying to accomplish. It engages them to get in the boat with you and row in the same direction. That makes for a powerful business.


How does this happen and what is the process? It takes a bit of time, a couple of pieces of paper and getting real with yourself. Write down why you love what you do. (Or why you used to love what you do, for those who are currently overwhelmed.) Think of a day in the past where you thought, “Man, today was the best day at work. I love what I do.” What happened on that day? Write down what winning looks like. Winning is hitting the bull’s eye of your target. Hitting any ring outside of it is missing. It does not get you where you want to go.

I love the term “winning.” It lets me know what the goal looks like, where the goal line is, how big or small is the bull’s eye. Once this is known, I can then develop a plan. I can quit being aimless.

Not understanding or knowing why you are in the dairy business will hinder you feeling like you are winning at work. Once you know it, have it written down so you can easily repeat it to yourself. (It cannot be the length of a book, but rather a short sentence.) Then you can prepare, focus, pay the price, have a sense of urgency, apply your energy to it. Because then you will be driving toward a result, an outcome, a finish line. And, even better, you will know when you have reached it, are short of it or have passed it up. Because you know what winning is. And winning is always better than not winning. end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Bruce J. Vande Steeg