Developing the next generation of ag leaders

Dan Verhasselt is vice president of sales for Ornua Ingredients North America.

By Randy Tenpas

To quote Vince Lombardi, “Leaders are made; they are not born.” So it is true when it comes to Wisconsin’s agriculture industry. How ironic that one of the leading industries in Wisconsin is comprised of leaders who excel in both technical and soft skills. In other words, ag professionals are both doers and communicators.

That’s the case with Dan Verhasselt, vice president of sales for Ornua Ingredients North America, a manufacturer of pasteurized process cheese products. He serves on the leadership team at Ornua’s 110,000-square-foot plant in Hilbert, Wis. The plant includes an impressive research and development lab. Verhasselt’s staff of four sales representatives is responsible for serving the industrial food sector with customized cheese technologies and solutions. Some of his customers work at multi-national food companies throughout North America.

Verhasselt’s career pathway had a humble beginning. He rolled up his sleeves regularly to do the extra things it took to become a leader in and out of the classroom at Fox Valley Technical College in the late 1980s.

“The instructors encouraged me to get involved in the program’s student association and participate in Postsecondary Agriculture Student (PAS) competitions at both the state and national levels,” Verhasselt recalled. “Those experiences helped me develop lifelong skills in leadership, communications, and negotiations to complement my dose of agriculture applications.”

Those earlier days of paying dues also included Verhasselt putting in long days working on his family’s dairy farm in Freedom. After graduating in 1991 with a degree in ag business service and supply from FVTC, he tussled a bit on whether or not to continue working on the family farm or hit the ag industry. His brother had completed the college’s farm operations program, and that looked like a viable career option as well.

He then realized the ag business route at FVTC would open up more choices. Verhasselt then learned FVTC’s agriculture program was held in high regard.

A solid mix of field studies while absorbing a holistic education by way of extra-curricular immersions paved the way for a young Verhasselt to jump-start a career in sales. Prior to earning his most recent executive position at Ornua three years ago, he spent time working in sales at Land O’ Lakes in Sheboygan, where he advanced his career to a management role overseeing the southern Wisconsin region.

In that position, he led about 23 sales reps until a marketing management position emerged for him with a national focus.

Verhasselt’s next stop was Glanbia in Monroe. He oversaw the sales of whey protein powders in North America, in addition to milk protein powders out of Ireland. There, too, a director’s role found Verhasselt after his leadership skills once again caught the eye of company leaders.

Verhasselt believes his education at FVTC gave him the core tools to succeed in the ag business sector.

“The dairy industry in Wisconsin and across the country is thriving and continues to be in demand for well-educated, highly skilled employees to support its growth,” he said. “Agriculture continues to become more high-tech, so there is a constant need for technically adept, motivated people.”

The consistent drumbeat in Verhasselt’s career path epitomizes the value of technical education and its role in building industry-specific skill sets and professionals who can establish lasting relationships.

Just like Lombardi built leaders on the football field, today’s technical colleges are growing leaders in crop fields.

Tenpas serves as the agriculture program department chair at Fox Valley Technical College.