In the early 1900’s, many dairy farmers settled in Hilmar, Calif. In 1984, 12 of these dairy families formed Hilmar Cheese Company to make the most of their Jersey cows’ high-solids milk. They wanted to create new opportunities for hardworking dairy farmers and give them a fair price for the milk they produced. The company produced its first cheese in 1985.
“Those same business ethics apply to our customer relationships,” said David Ahlem, Hilmar’s president and chief executive officer. “We are dedicated to unlocking the full nutritional and economic value of dairy. Innovation, quality, research, technology and skilled staff still remain core principles of the company.”
Ahlem said Hilmar invests in people by making education, training and growth opportunities accessible for its employees and for citizens in the communities in which it serves.
“Today, the founders, along with the second and third generations, remain actively involved in guiding the company,” he continued. “With over 1,500 dedicated employees in Hilmar, Calif., and Dalhart, Texas, and with customers in more than 50 countries, we improve lives around the world.”
New brand, new identity
The forward-thinking cheese manufacturer and whey ingredients supplier recently revealed it has a new look and corporate strategy, unifying its products under the brand name Hilmar.
The company has shortened its commercial identity to Hilmar, but in its hometown of Hilmar, Calif., the company will remain Hilmar Cheese Company.
Founded in 1984, Hilmar established its ingredients brand in 2004. By integrating the company’s cheese and ingredients businesses, Hilmar now can put all of its strategic thinking and investment behind one brand.
Hilmar’s new logo includes a milk droplet that splits in two, representing the company’s two products, cheese and whey ingredients.
Kyle Jensen, vice president of global sales and marketing for Hilmar, explained the impetus behind the rebranding.
“Hilmar had been operating as two separate divisions based on the product and customers we serve: cheese and ingredients,” he said. “To better understand how we have been performing as a supplier and strategic partner with our customers, we conducted a brand study to learn more about their perceptions. We learned that customers in both parts of the business had a number of shared beliefs about us, including strong ethics, trust, transparency, humility, customer-centricity and partnership. We also discovered that our company is referred to as simply ‘Hilmar’ within our industries. That knowledge propelled us towards unifying our company from both an operational perspective and a brand view.”
Jensen said Hilmar developed a new logo and communication strategy about what the company represents.
“The addition of a droplet to the logo represents our unwavering commitment to dairy, which is core to our heritage and future,” he said. “The split in the droplet conveys that our innovation processes turn milk into cheese and ingredients.
“The wave that begins in the letter ‘H’ and extends through the wordmark symbolizes sustainability, water and stewardship, also inferring the flow of milk or water and a path forward. The colors in our logo were selected to evoke strength, trust and stability with blue, and the green speaks to a focus on the environment and a connection to agriculture,” Jensen said.
The rebranding effort further demonstrates the company’s commitment to growth while maintaining its heritage and purpose to “improve lives together.”
“Our first step in communicating our rebranding was to contact our customers in advance to answer any questions they had about the efforts,” Jensen said. The company launched the new brand at IFT FIRST Annual Event and Expo in Chicago, in July. With a new booth representing the updated look, the company has also created a single website for both cheese and ingredients and updated marketing and corporate communication materials. The company will continue to roll out the logo and brand to its packaging, internal documents and signage over the next year.
Jensen said feedback from customers and the industry has been overwhelmingly positive for the company’s refreshed look, with comments that the brand has a more modern and progressive appearance that better represents how Hilmar is perceived.
Last fall, Hilmar broke ground on a new facility in Dodge City, Kan.
The $600-plus million facility features technology geared toward conservation and sustainability. The company joined the US Dairy Stewardship Commitment to achieve industrywide neutral GHG emissions, optimize water usage and improve water quality by 2050.
The new plant makes use of instruments and control systems that minimize energy usage and the amount of water needed to keep the facility clean, and recycled water will clean the plant and equipment, and reclaim waste heat.
The new site also includes native and drought-tolerant landscaping that will decrease the facility’s greenhouse gas footprint and minimize water use.
“Demand for our cheese and whey ingredients in the marketplace is very strong,” Jensen said. “Dodge City will produce cheese and whey protein. This growth is a direct result of our momentum and progress toward achieving our strategic goals.”
Working to improve lives
Hilmar is committed to improving the lives of everyone the company touches, including consumers, customers, milk producers, employees and those who live in its surrounding communities.
“Consumers worldwide benefit from the nutrient-rich products of cheese and whey proteins,” Ahlem said. “Our customers benefit in growing their businesses. Dairy farmers benefit from a local, reliable processor for their milk. Employees benefit from a strong company with competitive wages with excellent benefits, including a tuition reimbursement program to further their personal growth. Our communities and citizens benefit as we support hundreds of local community organizations that make a difference and improve the places where we operate. The dairy industry also benefits as we invest in telling the dairy story through our California Visitor Center and exhibits at the XIT Museum in Texas.”
The company’s purpose to “improve lives together” is evident in its support of its local communities. One of the ways the company does this is through its philanthropy program, which supports hundreds of organizations in its local communities.
“Last year, we made Merced County’s largest (in size) donation – a 30,000-gallon silo to the Merced County Fire Department for its new Castle Training Facility,” Ahlem said. “We are a strong supporter of education and contribute to many scholarship programs in addition to our own Hilmar Scholarship Program, which awarded 52 students scholarships for 2023. Our employee volunteers also support a variety of activities in each of the communities.”
Ahlem said Hilmar’s California Visitor Center is a commitment to life-improving education.
“Hilmar is not a consumer-branded product. So, unlike a branded product company visitor center that is focused to sell the brand, the purpose of our visitor center is to interactively engage guests to discover the benefits of dairy – from nutrition to sustainability,” he said. “We only consumer package a small amount of Hilmar cheese for our employees, visitor center and holiday gift boxes. The visitor center promotes the entire cheese industry by selling other brands of cheeses in our store.”
Thousands of students participate in the company’s free educational field trip program, which includes a guided intra-curricular, hands-on activity to make ice cream for kindergarten to third-grade students or to follow the scientific method to make cheese for students in fourth-grade classes and above.
Ahlem said the visitor center also hosts thousands of tourists and families each year, and they learn about cheese making and the dairy industry.
The company extended this educational outreach by placing duplicate hands-on exhibits at the XIT Museum in Dalhart, Texas, he said.
Products and manufacturing
Hilmar produces natural cheeses sold to private label, regional and national brand cheese packagers in 40-lb and 640-lb blocks.
“Our customers convert our cheeses into multiple formats before packaging them for sale, including sliced, shredded, cubed/diced, stick and more,” Jensen said. “Our most popular cheeses are American classics like mild and vintage cheddar, Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, Colby and Colby-Jack.”
The company also produces European-style cheeses (Mozzarella, Provolone, Romano, Gouda and rindless Muenster) and Hispanic-style cheeses. Hilmar TruSmoke is a hickory wood smoked cheese available in several varieties.
“Our patented process smokes the curd during the manufacturing process, providing even smoke flavor throughout the block,” Jensen said.
While the company name is not on the product when it is ultimately sold to the consumer, Hilmar cheeses are sold in grocery stores, warehouse clubs and mass merchants. Restaurants and foodservice companies also utilize Hilmar cheeses in their dishes.
Plus, Hilmar produces a wide range of nutritious and functional high whey proteins and lactose for companies around the world.
Customers include prominent retail brands, private label and start-ups that develop and sell their products in the sports and performance nutrition market for protein powders and bars, early life nutrition market for infant formula, and healthy living market for snacks and supplements, according to Jensen.
“The source of our whey comes from our large-scale cheese manufacturing operations that provide the freshest, highest-quality whey stream,” he said. “Our highly valuable proteins, including isolates, hydrolysates and distinct protein fractions, can be found in a variety of consumer products. We provide ingredients found in infant formula, sports nutrition powders, bars and beverages. And also foods for general nutrition, like bakery products, confectionery, salad dressing and yogurt.”
Additionally, Hilmar strives to continually improve its safety culture by driving safety ownership to the right level.
“Environmental, social and economic sustainability are integrated into our business,” said Jeremy Travis, vice president of quality and technical services for Hilmar. “We have been publicly reporting our progress annually since 2010 and our headquarters and innovation center is a LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) Platinum building. Our plants are committed to producing safe products that consistently meet our customers’ needs while striving to continually improve our processes. We use the rigorous Safe Quality Food (SQF) program to meet this commitment.”
Following the digital acceleration brought by COVID-19, the company has invested heavily in increasing its efficiency at all levels of the organization.
“One of our focuses is end-to-end process integration and how we can automatize manual processes both at the corporate and factory levels, moving from reacting to preventing mode,” said Stephane Adam, vice president of information technology (IT) for Hilmar. “We are using new tools in our operations technology area to deliver more productivity, efficiency and quality for our customers.”
To achieve this digitalization strategy, Adam said Hilmar invests in its employees’ skills development to ensure that it implements a sustained change to the whole company.
“The IT team is going through its own transformation to drive and support the digital evolution of the business,” he said. “We secure the business through investments in our cyber security capabilities, both in terms of education, tools and processes, and also in delivering a resilient infrastructure.”
With the company’s ongoing investments in its future, the next chapter certainly looks bright for Hilmar.
“We are excited about the future ahead,” Ahlem said. “We continue to focus on our key strategies, including cultivating an exceptional culture for employees, setting the standard in operational excellence and wowing our customers.”
Latest product innovation
Hilmar recently launched a new product aimed at the sports and healthy living nutrition markets. Hilmar PROtelyze Extend is a high-quality hydrolyzed whey protein isolate intended for nutrition bars. It boosts protein content while ensuring a desirable texture throughout shelf life.
“Hilmar PROtelyze Extend is a high-quality hydrolyzed whey protein isolate created to provide a boost in protein content and promote softening in nutrition bars, extending shelf life,” said Kyle Jensen, vice president of global sales and marketing for Hilmar. “The unique peptide profiles contribute to a bland flavor profile that does not affect a bar’s sensory attributes. Our new protein is also extremely low lactose (0.2%) and low in carbohydrates, fat and cholesterol.”
This new ingredient also has the potential to save customers money while making a better bar, Jensen continued.
“Production trials suggest that they can use less Hilmar PROtelyze Extend, combining it with a lower cost WPI in their formulation to achieve the same softening effect compared to other bar softening products,” he said.