After a historically cold and snow-packed Chicago winter, Dan Milovanovic is one of the few people who didn’t look forward to the spring thaw. An avid snowmobiler, hunter and skier, he’d be happy with year ‘round winter and would thrive in the cold long after even the most robust of Chicagoans would cry ‘uncle’. Milovanovic, senior vice president of North America operations with OSI Group LLC, is a little unconventional like that, and it has spilled over into his successful career. With a toughness and intensity that brings to mind NFL coaching legend Mike Ditka, and an unrelenting pursuit of excellence that inspires a team of operationally diverse processing experts, Milovanovic has unquestionably earned the title of Meat&Poultry’s Operations Executive of the Year.

Dan Milovanovic, senior vice president of North America Operations with OSI Group LLC.

Charged with keeping up with the daily production of plants continent-wide, he has mastered his trade by learning every facet of the business first-hand. Starting out in the financial side of the business, he has worked his way up through the ranks for the past 25 years, spending hundreds of hours at dozens of OSI Group’s plants and scores of OSI International Foods facilities throughout the world. In his current role, the emphasis is on optimizing operations at the growing number of North America-based plants, where efficiencies and technologies are being applied at OSI operations in emerging markets, especially in China.

Not unlike OSI’s approach to business, Milovanovic is content to work diligently behind the scenes, not seeking accolades, but instead realizing gratification from leading by example and exceeding the expectations of some of the highest-profile customers in the world. This leadership style is just one of the characteristics that make him an exemplary operations executive working daily for one of the industry’s leading food suppliers with a global footprint.

With its corporate offices in nearby Aurora, Ill., where business-casual attire is unheard of and suits and ties are part of the daily protocol, Milovanovic hustles in the door of the company’s frozen-food plant in Geneva, Ill., with quick steps as he exchanges warm handshakes and lights up the room with a genuine smile. He wastes little time as he swaps his suit coat for a smock and thrusts his tasseled dress shoes into rubber boots in preparation for a walk-through of the highly automated and recently renovated facility. His charisma is contagious, even in his 25th year with the company, which he has seen grow to a network of nearly 60 plants throughout 17 countries. But his introduction to the company and the industry was hardly typical.

A numbers guy

Milovanovic, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a degree in accounting in 1989. Soon thereafter, OSI recruited him to work in its finance department in Chicago. “That was Feb. 28th,” he recalls.

He spent most of his time back then auditing OSI’s facilities and also did project accounting before assuming a position as the Chicago plant’s controller in 1990. He then practiced and applied Statistical Process Control as process control manager for the company. Next, in 1993, he was approached by Dale Aden, who was one of his first and most influential mentors, who asked him to run the Chicago plant as plant manager. “Obviously, you know how to run a computer,” he was told, which seemed to be the most important qualification, next to overseeing the plant’s operations. At the time, the facility was experiencing some operational challenges. With the expertise of Milovanovic and his team’s attention, “we got it running nicely,” he says.

Meanwhile, in 1996, OSI purchased the Oakland Foods plant, a 375,000-sq.-ft. facility in Oakland, Iowa. Not only was Milovanovic part of the committee that decided to buy the plant and completely overhaul it, he was also recruited later to run it as general manager in 2000.

“It’s our biggest facility and is still considered our flagship plant,” he says. At the Oakland plant, OSI manufactured bacon, sausage, beefsteak and hot dogs, and had a staff of about 500 employees; this has since grown to about 800 employees today. For the next four years he led the company’s juggernaut operation. He doesn’t deny the task of running the plant was daunting and required plenty of time-consuming care and nurturing. With a son who was about kindergarten age, Milovanovic remembers well the tradeoffs and balancing act of playing the role of both a father and the operational guru at the plant.

By 2004, the Oakland facility was running well and Milovanovic was up for a new challenge. “Before I could move on, I had to find my replacement,” he says. After recruiting industry veteran Mike Koranda to fill his shoes, Milovanovic trained him extensively to work for OSI. The two men were practically attached at the hip during the transition. “We literally faced each other every day; our desks faced each other,” he says. After his tenure at the Oakland plant ended, Milovanovic then worked for a year as assistant vice president/director of business integration for the global organization, and, in 2005, he was given the title of vice president of strategic and operational initiatives. Along with this lofty title came an ambitious travel schedule that took him to the company’s facilities all over the world, which have now grown to include nearly 60 plants in 17 countries, including the Philippines, China, Australia, Japan, India and, most recently, Canada.

“That was literally my world tour,” he says, and after months of traveling and returning home, it became evident to Milovanovic and others that the company was perhaps too decentralized.

In late 2008, OSI restructured and appointed Milovanovic its senior vice president of North America operations. It was then that the operations of the company became laser-focused on capacity utilization and making the most of its many assets. Since that time, Milovanovic says OSI’s production has increased 40 percent “within our [current] walls.”

This growth wouldn’t have been possible without a team leader who started out as a bean counter and took on the challenge of learning about every aspect of his company’s business. “I’ve been in the trenches,” which he says goes a long way in terms of establishing credibility with his expansive team.

Continuous improvement

One of many plant projects undertaken during Milovanovic’s tenure, the Geneva, Ill., plant was built about two years ago and is now highly automated in processing and packaging protein-based meals, including everything from soups and salsas to pastas to a variety of sauces. Milovanovic says the frozen-meal plant is now able to produce twice as much product without increasing the number of employees, and now employs approximately 150 people.

“The new construction is focused on food safety,” he says, standing near what he points out is the world’s largest spiral freezer, one of only six of its kind in the world and capable of handling 22,000 lbs. of product per hour. Inside, product spirals up 43 tiers of a conveyor and descends 43 more. Adjacent to the expansive processing room, where frozen meals are manufactured and assembled, products are conveyed to the packaging area.

At this and all the OSI facilities, Milovanovic says the packaging step is all about properly timing the product flow to the end of the line. At the end of the line at the Geneva plant, a robust robot packs and stacks boxes just before they are shipped by conveyor to the adjoining 641,000-sq.-ft. cold-storage facility operated by Millard Refrigerated Services.

One of the many benefits of the robotic technology is the elimination of repetitive-motion injuries, including back strains and muscle fatigue. Additionally, “it doesn’t take breaks and never calls in sick,” Milovanovic says. But robotics don’t always equate to turnkey solutions. “A lot of times, with automation comes complication,” he says and certain processing steps will always require human involvement. Automation is playing a bigger role operationally as the company continues to grow and diversify.

High-volume and mega-capacity typifies OSI’s approach to growing its business today, as one of the most prominent processors in the meat and poultry industry. The company specializes in large-scale and long production runs, catering to the needs of the best-known Quick-Service Restaurant (QSR) chains. While the company’s biggest customer is probably one of the worst-kept secrets in the fast-food industry, OSI officials prefer to not even tout it, lest it tarnish the company’s ‘behind-the-scenes’ role. “Some people call us a co-packer, but we prefer the term supplier partner,” Milovanovic says. That is a role he’s proud of and one that has proven to be a successful business plan for OSI, with annual sales topping $6.1 billion in 2013.

OSI takes a team approach to growing its business and everyone on the roster is aware of the emphasis on quantity and throughput. “We don’t just sell to everyone,” says Milovanovic, admitting that some business opportunities simply don’t make sense. “Scale is very important to us,” he says. “Some sales just don’t work because for us, small volumes don’t fit.” Milovanovic repeats: “We work with many of the world’s leading food brands. We offer quality, safe food at an affordable price.”

When a fit is made, OSI is all-in. An entire team is assigned to each customer. “We are truly their partners,” he says, starting with culinary support and product development right up through packaging. OSI’s operational breadth and the expertise of its thousands of team members give Milovanovic an edge when potential or current customers have questions about execution and capabilities. If he can’t answer the question himself, “I got a guy that knows,” he says.

Surrounded by excellence

Milovanovic’s teams are led by pros who know their business, which makes his job easier. Like Milovanovic, Jim Bowen, vice president of On-Cor operations, is a long-time employee, having spent the last 34 years with OSI. He’s one of those “guys” Milovanovic refers to who “knows.” The admiration is mutual. “It’s easy to see he is passionate,” Bowen says. “And he’s tough, but he is always fair.”

“I look at the plant environment, the safety of the people in the plant and the safety of the food,” says Milanovich about physically visiting OSI's processing facilities.

Walking through the processing area, Bowen puts his nose in the air and pivots his head toward one of the steaming kettles where a sauce is bubbling inside. “Smell that?” he says. “You can tell by the tangy smell that is barbecue sauce,” used to accent a pork entrée for a customer, which was being made that day.

“That’s a man who knows his business,” Milovanovic says, smiling.

When he walks in the plant, “Dan immediately looks up, while everyone else looks down,” says Bowen, validating what Milovanovic says about how his team knows its business and doesn’t need him looking over their shoulder. He knows he is better at focusing on the big picture and how operational excellence translates into quantifiable results, harkening back to his accounting genes. “The first thing I look for when I walk in a plant is cleanliness,” Milovanovic says. “You have to have that mentality.”

The Geneva facility, which spans about 80,000 sq. ft., is designed for growth. While it is operating near capacity today, there is plenty of room for expansion. “Our goal is to grow,” Milovanovic says. “It’s nice to build a facility for an operation rather than constructing a big building and filling it in with what you think you might need,” he says. He still spends plenty of time in the company’s plants, most recently committing that time at the company’s Ft. Atkinson, Wis., plant, where a significant expansion is being completed.

Given the breadth of his responsibilities and the diverse operations of OSI’s plants in the US, Milovanovic can’t afford to be a micro-manager. Thanks to technology, he can monitor production, yields and efficiencies at all the company’s plants, anywhere he has access to the Internet.

“I have plenty of charts and data when it comes to overall operations,” he says. But when it comes to physically visiting the processing facilities, “I look at the plant environment, the safety of the people in the plant and the safety of the food.” And while OSI’s facilities are diverse in the products they produce and the customers they supply, they share an approach that emphasizes core consistencies.

“All of our facilities are also very similar,” he says, referring to the electronic access he and other key executives have that delivers system-wide information on OSI’s production, productivity, yields and much more. “We call it the OSI Advantage system,” a best-practice, quality dashboard. OSI developed the software for the company internally, over the past three years.

And maximizing production is a priority of Milovanovic’s entire team. “Cost containment is very big and a matrix that is constantly monitored.” He says another tell-tale barometer of how smooth operations are going in a plant doesn’t show up on any chart or graph. He says a lot can be revealed by noticing the body language and expressions of the workers on the processing floor. “If you look at peoples’ faces you can tell a lot,” Milovanovic says.

Solid partnerships

When it comes to selecting service and equipment partners, Milovanovic defers to a capable engineering committee, which is responsible for narrowing the possibilities down to two or three companies, depending on the application and specific needs of the customer. “Then we go on field trips to see those companies,” he says. “We look at cleanability, the engineering, QA,” he says, adding that something as specific as a conveyor belt is assigned a specification. Then, when it comes to decision time about a potential purchase, “We have a full understanding that not just one person at the company makes a decision. We really do work as a team.”

When it comes to working with suppliers of equipment and services, he says OSI looks to companies with proven and new innovations. “Obviously, they need to offer equipment that handles high volume as well as reliability and consistent performance.”

On the horizon

At the age of 50, Milovanovic says with certainty that he plans to continue working for 12 more years. “Maybe longer,” he quips. “I like what I do.” With a 19-year-old son attending Purdue Univ., the OSI veteran is less concerned with counting down his days until retirement and more excited to see his son graduate with a degree in sales and marketing. His dad isn’t shy about steering him away from following in his footsteps, conceding that it takes a special breed to work in the meat business.

An accountant at heart, Milovanovic stays on top of production numbers and data. Numbers tell one part of the story of his team’s success. He says one good measure of his performance is by the number of Request for Proposals his team is awarded. “When I’m winning RFPs, that means we are succeeding; fortunately, we win a lot of them.”