Former Gays Mills resident Michael Bedessem was awarded the Ray Haas Organic Pioneer Award at the recent Organic Valley Annual Meeting held at the LaCrosse Center.
Bedessem, who has served the LaFarge-based organic food co-operative as its Chief Financial Officer, will step down from that position on July 1, 2016. He will become the Organic Valley Vice President of Business Development.
The new position will allow him to work more from his home in Hudson, Wisconsin near the Twin Cities. The move will also allow Organic Valley to focus more on acquisitions and partnerships with others active in the organic food industry.
As the co-operative’s CFO, Bedessem has already played a pivotal role in acquisitions and strategic partnerships. Most recently, Organic Valley was able to acquire two meat-processing plants in Minnesota to meet their growing need for butchering organic meat.
Earlier, Bedessem played a crucial role in working out a strategic partnership and five-way deal with Stonyfield Farm, as well as associated producers pools and a processor.
Although Michael Bedessem has spent the last few years living in Hudson, he spent more than 20 years living in the Gays Mills area. Since moving to Hudson, he has been making long commutes to LaFarge every week for the past three-and-a-half years. The weekly mileage including the trips to LaCrosse and LaFarge averages more than 700 miles per week.
Bedessem explained his move to Hudson was based on his family. Three of his children and three grandchildren live in the Twin City area.
Organic agriculture became a big part of Michael Bedessem’s life in 1990 when his father, John Bedessem, asked Mike to join him at the Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard in Gays Mills. Michael and his wife Lori moved to Gays Mills.
Michael’s first encounter with CROPP/Organic Valley was selling some of the orchard’s organic apples through the fledgling co-operative.
Mike Bedessem would later serve on the CROPP Board of Directors after being convinced to run for the board by local organic dairy farmer Dave Engel.
Bedessem served on the board from 1992 to 1994. In 1994, he became the co-op’s business coordinator, on the way to becoming business manager and finally CFO and Chief Information Officer.
“I started in January of 1994 and have held the position ever since,” Bedessem said.
What’s that 22-year ride been like for the soft-spoken financial guru of Organic Valley?
“It’s been fantastic,” Bedessem said in summing up his career with the co-operative. “It’s not very often a financial person gets to grow a business from one million dollars in annual sales to over one billion dollars annually. I’m happy to be a part of that.”
Michael Bedessem was grateful to be chosen to receive the Ray Haas Organic Pioneer Award. The longtime Organic Valley CFO called it “humbling” and “a great honor.” He noted that Ray Haas was one of CROPP’s founding farmers, who gave so much to the organization that would lead to its ultimate success.
“It is with deep gratitude that I accepted the award,” Bedessem said. “I have been blessed to work in an organization with a great mission, with great owners, the farmers, and a fantastic staff. However, it’s time to move back closer to my family.”
While modesty sort of defines Michael Bedessem, many of his closest colleagues were more than ready to sing his praises and describe his efforts that have been instrumental in building Organic Valley.
First among those colleagues to praise Bedessem and the work he has done over the years for the co-operative is Organic Valley CEO George Siemon.
Siemon described the origin of CROPP as farming co-operative “with a lot of idealists” pursuing different paths.
“Michael Bedessem is the professional that came here and tied us to reality,” Siemon said.
To Siemon it was Bedessem in his early roles as the business coordinator and business manager, who was able to “glue the business together as a whole.”
While the Organic Valley CEO may have some regrets about seeing Bedessem stepping back from the CFO position, he understands it. Living in Hudson, Wisconsin near his children and grandchildren means he to needs cut back some, according to Siemon. However, the CEO also sees it as a great opportunity to have Bedessem work in a new role as Vice President of Business Development.
“We need someone in that role now,” Siemon said. “We need to be proactive, not reactive, to business opportunities. We need him to take on his new duties.”
As might be expected, Bedessem took care of the details enabling a smooth departure from his CFO position. He gave the co-operative a five-year notice of his intent and saw to the hiring of Dave Poremba, the cooperative’s current controller ready to succeed him as the CFO on July 1. He also got Frank Dravis in place to take over his CIO role.
In his new role, Bedessem will continue to use his cordial business style with those working in conventional dairy and agriculture, as well as organic agriculture, Siemon explained.
Praise for Bedessem’s work from Organic Valley’s Chief Operating Officer Louise Hemstead was similar to Siemon’s.
Like Michael, Louise started in her position with Organic Valley in 1994. So she has also seen it all. Going from millions in sales annually to over one billion last year and starting with about 75 farmer members then to more than 1,800 now.
“The business structure that Michael helped to create has been invaluable,” Hemstead said. “It was the change we needed.”
Hemstead also credited Bedessem with cautioning the co-operative about the impending economic slow down in 2008 and positioning it to withstand the downturn. The COO noted that Bedessem is an avid reader, who contributes lots of information to the co-operative.
Hemstead thinks that as the VP of Business Development, Michael will “get to do all the fun stuff involving making new deals and reviewing all the opportunities.” However, the COO is confident that Bedessem is the right person for the job. She pointed to the 2010 Stonyfield Farm deal as an example. She noted Stonyfield is the co-operative’s “number one customer.”
As for the Ray Haas Award, Hemstead couldn’t think of a more deserving recipient than Michael Bedessem. She called him “respectful, helpful and humble.” She noted that he is more likely to not take credit for something and give the credit to others.
Gays Mills native Jim Wedeberg was also a founding farmer with CROPP and currently serves as the Organic Valley Dairy Pool Director. Wedeberg, like Gays Mills area residents Dave Engel and Greg Welsh, is also a previous Ray Haas Organic Pioneer Award winner.
Wedeberg has known Bedessem since he arrived to help his father at the Turkey Ridge Orchard.
Wedeberg credited Bedessem with guiding the co-op through some difficult times, as it grew to over one billion dollars in annual sales last year. In particular, he recalled Bedessem’s efforts to help the co-op through some growing pains in 1999-2000 when growth was exceeding equity. Bedessem sought investors in “Freedom Funds” that helped bridge a gap to finding larger investment. Organic Valley has run far past those problems and now has 58 percent owner equity. However, at that time, equity was a much smaller percentage, according to Wedeberg.
“Mike has this vision for solutions,” Wedeberg explained. “He could see solutions, when others couldn’t and he worked toward those solutions for the co-op.”
Wedeberg remembered one of Bedessem's favorite phrases.
“There’s no mission without a profit,” Bedessem would often remind those he worked with at Organic Valley.
Wedeberg is completely convinced that Michael Bedessem is the right choice for the new Vice President of Business Development.
“Mike has a real talent for bringing people together and negotiating deals,” Wedeberg said of his longtime friend and co-worker.