In October 1975, Carl Willis was struggling to find a job.
Raised on a small dairy farm in the tiny town of Macks Creek, Mo., Willis graduated earlier in the year from Southwest Baptist College with a degree in business administration, a minor in economics and an emphasis in accounting. His search for employment, however, was disrupted by a country that was crawling out of a recession.
His luck changed when a family friend recommended Mid-America Dairymen. He was hired as a liaison between the Lebanon, Mo., plant and the sales and marketing department in Springfield, Mo. From there, his 40-year career took off.
Since joining DFA’s predecessor cooperative, Mid-America Dairymen, in 1975, Willis earned a reputation as a caring co-worker, respected leader and savvy businessman. On February 6, Willis officially retired from the only place where he had ever worked.
“My job has never been boring,” Willis says.
After about a year in his entry-level position, Willis became a traffic coordinator. He scheduled milk pickups at dairy farms and arranged plant-to-plant and plant-to-customer transportation. He also organized transportation of inbound packaging supplies and ingredients for plants to use in the production of finished products. From there, he worked his way up to traffic manager and transport supervisor.
In the late 1970s, as deregulation was overtaking the transportation industry, Willis says the cooperative embarked on a new strategy: start a for-hire fleet, which hauled milk and products for Mid-America Dairymen and was also available for hire by a third-party company. Willis became fleet manager, spearheading the project and growing the fleet to 350 power units, or tractors that pull the trailers.
Willis oversaw the for-hire fleet, which delivered outbound Mead-Johnson products and picked up inbound marketing and packaging supplies for plants in the southern division. He says it was one of the highlights of his career. When the fleet system ended in the early 2000s, Willis entered his current role as director of fluid transportation.
Since then, Willis has been partially responsible for fluid transportation nationwide. The division serves three primary functions: transporting fluid products from plant to plant, from the plants to outside customers and as a third-party hauler, transporting fluid products on behalf of other organizations. Before Willis retired, a typical day started with a staff meeting, where he addressed issues such as equipment malfunctions or routinely late carriers. Then, Willis says he spent his days planning future routes and negotiating rates with carriers and customers.
“It’s about staying up on what’s happening in your business so that you can make changes to do the best for the company and for the dairy farmers,” he says.
To help him with that goal, Willis worked closely with Harriet Arnold, manager of administration and operations for fluid transportation. Arnold had been working with Willis for her entire 32-year career, and she also retired on February 6.
Arnold’s favorite part about her career has been the challenges that came with the many changes she saw over the years.
“There are times when our business has changed, and we’ve had to come up with new ideas or new plans,” she says. “I like to have this puzzle and put all the pieces together.”