Cached within the myriad files of YouTube is a nine-minute TV segment from 1984 called “Mr. Rogers Visits the Cows,” featuring Fred Rogers getting a tour of a dairy farm from his friend Jane Henshaw. As the scene ends, a silo painted with the name “Turner’s” appears in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
The cows that Rogers visited are now gone, replaced by a state-of-the-art lab. But the Turner’s name still stands tall amid the hilly terrain of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh.
Turner’s Dairy has served the Pittsburgh area since Charles Turner started his dairy business in 1930. Charles’ son, Walt, who serves on the board of directors at Covenant Theological Seminary and serves as a ruling elder at Grace Reformed Church of Pittsburgh (PCA), is now chairman.
For Walt, passing along the company’s Christian ethos of excellence, service, and hospitality is paramount as he shepherds other family members serving with him. His nephew Chuck is the president of Turner’s, and Chuck’s son and Walt’s grandchildren make up the fourth generation of Turner workers, bringing the total to 11 Turners currently working with the dairy.
For Walt Turner, passing along the company’s Christian ethos of excellence, service, and hospitality is paramount as he shepherds other family members serving with him.
Simply passing a business from one generation to the next is an accomplishment, and to pass it to the fourth generation is highly unusual in the U.S. According to the Harvard Business Review, only three percent of family-owned businesses are still viable in the family’s fourth generation.
And Turner’s Dairy isn’t just surviving — it is producing award-winning products and earning impressive contracts with Pittsburgh-area institutions. The dairy produces 37,500 gallons of milk products and 25,000 gallons of teas, juices, and drinks every day.
The success of Turner’s Dairy hinges on its excellent service, humble leadership, and faithful stewardship. The company remains faithful to the biblical principles that guided Charles Turner when he started the business during the Depression and takes seriously Charles’ original motto: “Perfect Products, Perfect Service, Treat People Right.”
Creating the Cream of the Crop
For a perfect product, Turner’s starts with premium quality raw milk. The dairy no longer owns its own herd, so it retains exclusive partnerships with 42 Pittsburgh-area dairy farms.
Even before the federal government developed uniform sanitation standards, Charles Turner implemented stringent standards for his milk. Today, Turner’s asks its partner farms to provide milk that contains one-fifth the bacteria count permitted by the federal minimum standard. Walt said this stricter standard means farmers must work harder to keep their cows and equipment clean, so Turner’s pays the farmers a higher price for their efforts.
The extra effort pays off in taste with Turner’s products. In 2016, Turner’s Dairy won gold medals at the Los Angeles International Dairy Competition for its whole milk, two percent milk, and buttermilk. Since 2011, Turner’s Dairy has earned 23 gold medals for its milk products at the Los Angeles competition. Turner’s Dairy also won first place for whole milk at the 2016 International Dairy Exposition.
Customers notice a difference with the taste, too. UPMC, a Pittsburgh hospital chain that operates one of the country’s largest hospitals, awards its dairy contracts based on taste tests. Turner’s Dairy wins every time.
Chuck said some of his earliest memories are of the dairy, and he always knew the family business would be for him.
Turner’s other corporate customers include the popular Pittsburgh restaurant chain Eat’n’Park, Lamagna Cheese Company, and 80 school districts like Pittsburgh Public Schools, the second-largest school district in the state. And Turner’s products populate the dairy aisle of mid-level and high-end grocery stores across the state as well.
As more business and retail customers value sustainability and hormone-free products, Turner’s Dairy is an enticing option. The locally sourced, ultra-clean milk from ethically-treated cows is appealing to an increasingly discerning customer base.
The weight of professional titles varies at Turner’s Dairy, depending on who is talking. Chuck, 51, insists there is no significance to his title of president because he is simply continuing the lessons and values that he learned from his father, uncles, and grandfather. “Titles have never really been important to us,” he said.
However, Walt, age 71, believes that Chuck’s title is significant because it validates Chuck’s strong leadership at the company. In Walt’s estimation, Chuck represents both the company and the industry, and Chuck handles those responsibilities well.
Chuck is a respected judge at dairy competitions, and he spearheaded the efforts to remove the growth hormone rBGH from Turner’s products in the early 2000s. When Pennsylvania banned dairies from labeling their products as rBGH-free, Chuck joined the effort to pressure the state to change course.
In an article for Pittsburgh Magazine, Turner’s Dairy treasurer Robin Turner recalled attending industry meetings where other farmers were frustrated from working with their parents because the older generation was not willing to yield control to their children. But she has found Turner’s Dairy to be different.
Walt and Chuck are happy to accept feedback from younger generations and applaud how their children and grandchildren have enhanced the company. Chuck also looks with admiration and sincere appreciation on the generations that preceded him and credits Walt with valuing those relationships as an integral aspect of the business.
But what makes family members want to stay in the family business? Ingrained in the Turners is a conviction that the business isn’t a Turner thing — it’s a God thing. Walt said his father insisted that everything the family had belonged to God, and Charles was committed to making the best use of God’s resources.
Charles also had a magnetic personality, and his grandchildren loved to spend time with him. For the 11 Turners who currently work at the dairy, their young adult lives centered around the cows. For many of them, like Chuck, the family business became a natural first choice in career.
Chuck said some of his earliest memories are of the dairy, and he always knew the family business would be for him. He studied food science at Penn State University and came back to the dairy. As for his own children, Chuck said what matters most to him is that they love what they do, whether or not they work with him.
What if a family member doesn’t want to be part of the dairy? That’s OK, Walt said. What he wants is for the children and grandchildren to understand and develop character. “As these children and grandchildren discern their gifts and callings,” Walt said, “[we] support them in it.”
Chuck’s son Steve joined the dairy sales team three years ago when he graduated from Pittsburgh’s Robert Morris University. Initially he studied engineering without plans to join the family business, but when he changed majors, he changed life plans. Steve understands he has received a legacy from his father and the previous generations, and he wants to steward that legacy for his children and future generations.
In addition to the dairy’s award-winning products, the legacy includes hosting the annual Heart-to-Heart Picnic for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Since 1983, the Turner family has welcomed children with heart conditions and their families to spend an afternoon connecting at the Turner farm. As many as 600 people attend the annual corn roast.
According to Walt, when Charles purchased the farm, he said, “This is the Lord’s farm, not ours.”
And the Turner family takes seriously the trust that its customers put in the Turner products. The state-of-the-art lab, the stringent cleanliness standards — they are ultimately for the safety of the one million people who consume Turner’s products.
“Life is about relationships and stewardship,” Walt said. For the leadership of Turner’s, stewardship means caring for the land and the cows and pursuing excellence. It also extends to how the company treats its employees and customers.
Treating People Right
Chuck appreciates Walt’s continual focus on building the ethos of stewardship and relationships at Turner’s Dairy. He quotes one of Walt’s favorite sayings: “The most important relationship is the vertical relationship with God, and then relationships with people — the horizontal relationships — are next.”
The employees respond with unusual devotion to the dairy. The 160 full-time employees at Turner’s Dairy have a combined 2,500 years with the dairy. The dairy employs 17 third-generation families, and four families that have worked at the dairy for four generations.
In 2015, Turner’s Dairy earned the Family Business Award for mid-sized businesses from the Pittsburgh Business Times. The Turners take great pride in the award because it was based on anonymous employee feedback.
Many of the partner farms have worked with Turner’s for generations, too, so Chuck takes those relationships very seriously. He travels into the country to visit the partner farms several times each year, something few other dairies do.
For Walt, this model of stewardship also extends to how he spends his time outside the dairy. In addition to his work with Grace Reformed Church and Covenant Theological Seminary, where he’s working toward 25 years of continuous service to the school, he serves on the board of directors at Trinity Christian School in nearby Forest Hills.
As each generation looks to the next for leadership at Turner’s Dairy, there is an excitement to see how God will use the company and the young leadership to change and innovate the dairy industry. And just like with Mr. Rogers, the legacy will live on. Not just a legacy of successful individuals, but of an entire company committed to godly service through a very earthly product.
Megan Fowler tells the stories of people using the gifts God has given them in the places where God has placed them to serve God’s Kingdom. She and her husband have three sons and live in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Whenever possible, she drinks milk from Turner’s Dairy.