Len Roche

Food Industry Executive spoke with members of the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s (FPSA) Young Professionals Group about the challenges and opportunities they see in the food industry today and in the future. This interview is with Len Roche, a process engineer with Seiberling, an engineering and technical consulting company that provides process, clean in place (CIP) and steam in place (SIP) design and automation services to the food, dairy, and other industries.

How did you get into the food industry?

I got into the food industry through the career fair at the University of Wisconsin, where I went to school. I never thought I’d end up in the food industry. That’s because as an engineering student, you don’t hear much about food. At least in Wisconsin, the courses are steered towards chemicals, oil, and gas with very little exposure to food. Food is a sort of hidden industry — we all need food and drink, but we don’t spend much time thinking about production and how a product gets from the farm to our plate.

I first thought about the food industry as a career path when I interviewed with my current company, Seiberling. Immediately, I loved the company culture. It resonated with me, and I felt like I would be able to to make an impact. I also loved that the company is quite young. I was hired at the same time as three other engineers who are all about my age, between 22 and 26. It’s great being with other young professionals, as you are all growing at the same time. It’s a good support network.

I had never thought about the food industry as a career, but now I work primarily in food. And I love it.

What do you like about the food industry?

I love the fact that it’s so varied. On a weekly basis, I may go from milk to yogurt, perhaps dabble in wine, even synthetic meats. I like that it keeps me learning. What works in milk may not work in wine because the production practices and industry standards are markedly different.

The variety forces you to learn and grow constantly. It keeps you on your toes. I think that keeps you young because you have to adopt new ideas and evolve with the industry.

How have you seen the food industry change?

I’ve only been in the industry for two years, but I’ve still seen a lot of change. For example, dairy is a very old industry. I’ve seen a lot of plants built in 1950s and 60s that struggle to compete with the newer plants that have come online this decade. What worked in the past doesn’t work anymore. So, these older plants are being renewed to convert small scale batch production to high volume continuous production.

There has also been a lot of change in automation, which allows you to take people out of production. You no longer need operators to turn a valve or change a U-bend — you can achieve the same with automated valves and a revamped control system. Automation increases safety, product quality, and throughput because it removes human error from the equation.

How are new technologies making an impact?

The industry is so old that it takes a lot of capital investment to integrate new technologies into a plant. More often than not, you have to rebuild an entire process to incorporate a new technology, because that technology revolutionizes your entire production schedule and makes the older technology obsolete.

For example, mixproof valves have become the dairy standard. By incorporating mixproof valves, you can turn a batch process into a semi-continuous process. It may be only a minor engineering change, but it has a huge impact when it comes to a production schedule. It reduces your operating costs and allows you to maximize production across the board because you gain production flexibility and devote less time to cleaning.

Those are the big players trying to modernize older plants. On the flip side, smaller startups, like craft breweries, bring a different take on the same products. We’ve seen this in probiotics and in meat alternatives. This movement is spearheading a major change in the industry. These small companies cater to the Millennial market, and they’re carving out a sizeable niche for themselves. With this increased competition, I think the future looks very exciting for our industry.

What are your biggest challenges as a young professional in the food industry?

The biggest challenge I’ve had to face is building trust and credibility across the generational gap. I work with very knowledgable people who have been in the industry 20+ years. They’ve given their lives to the industry, and they’ve developed systems that work well for them.

Maneuvering around the different systems has been challenging as a new person to the company because everyone does things slightly differently. We may arrive at the same result, but by different paths, so it takes more work to build a solid foundation of trust.  

I think it’s a little easier in engineering than in other areas of the industry, because in engineering it’s pretty cut and dry. A particular design either works or doesn’t.

How do you overcome that challenge?

I ask a lot of questions. If you continue to ask questions every day and learn from your experiences, you will naturally adapt and find your place within the system. As I gain more experience and work more with the different generations, I’m definitely finding my place in the order of things.

All of the generations have advantages. There’s a lot of wisdom and knowledge in the older generations. It’s a huge resource we need to tap into. On the other side, they see the results of our innovation and they want to be involved too.

It’s all about relationships. If you develop a strong relationship, you usually find you are converging to a point where everyone works to their strengths. The more time you spend in the group, the more you’ll find everyone converges to that point where everyone is happy and we all work well together.

How can the industry reach out to younger people?

The industry focuses a lot on food sciences, dairy, and agriculture, at least at the University of Wisconsin. In the engineering department, the industry was particularly quiet. I took part in a lot of extracurriculars where we would network with companies in the area. We’d always hear from oil and gas, chemical, and consumer products companies, but I don’t remember ever having a food company come in and network with us. So, I didn’t know there is great need in the food industry for engineers.

If food companies were to focus more on engineering, they’d find a lot of smart young people willing to take up the call.

How can the food industry cater to how Millennials work?

A big issue I see is with culture. You can hire the younger generation, but if your culture is incompatible, will they stick around? Is it a great place to work? Do you have a sustainable model where you can continue recruiting down the generational line?

Young people aren’t averse to working long hours. Everyone talks about work-life balance. As long as you have the time you require outside of work, you’ll find your balance. More importantly, young people need a strong culture to keep us motivated and give us a purpose at work. This is seen in startups, where frequently young people choose to work longer hours for a smaller paycheck. They do this because they are part of something bigger and more meaningful.

I think the industry as a whole needs to focus on its culture. Luckily, culture is very fluid. As you focus on engaging the younger generation and incorporating them into your company, your culture will change naturally.  The question is, are you open to change? If so, you may look back in five years and think, “Wow, I can’t believe where we were five years ago!” Even in the two years I’ve been with Seiberling, I’ve seen this change in culture improve happiness and morale.

Overall, if you get your culture right, attracting and retaining young people will be easy.

Do you have any advice for a younger person looking to enter the food industry?

Tap into networking events at school. There are companies out there looking to hire. You may not be able to find them in engineering networking groups, but you can always walk over to the food science department.

Companies have a need for young engineers. If you go to these networking groups, you may be the only engineer there, which means you’ll stand out. They will take notice of you.

What broader trends will affect the industry in the next 5 to 10 years?

I think we’ll see more entry of smaller companies in the food industry which will increase competition and innovation. These companies listen and cater to the younger generation. It’s about selling an experience in addition to a product.

Just look at the brewing industry. It took just one or two craft breweries to open the flood gates, and now every city and every town has their own microbrewery. We’re on the precipice of something very similar happening in the food industry as a whole, and it will definitely force the bigger players to look out.

Explore other interviews in our FPSA Young Professionals Group series.

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