As the recipient of MEAT+POULTRY’s Operations Executive of the Year Award, John Schoenfellinger of Dietz & Watson has literally spent a lifetime figuring out how to make things better. As vice president of engineering at Dietz &Watson, his creativity, perseverance, and problem solving skills have helped fuel the premium deli foods manufacturer to tenfold growth over the last 26 years.
When Schoenfellinger says he has spent his whole life in the meat industry, he really means it. Born in 1955 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he experienced an early entry into the meat business.
“I’ve always been in the meat industry. My father was in the meat business, and that’s how I got involved. I’ve been around meat manufacturing facilities ever since I was 4 years old. My father worked for meat companies, and he used to take me to work with him on weekends. I remember when I was 4 or 5 years old, seeing those old smokers in the brick rooms. My father did maintenance among other things. When I was a little kid, Dad kept me at his side while he was taking things apart.”
Even before accompanying his father to work, however, Schoenfellinger showed a predisposition for things mechanical.
“I’ve always worked with mechanical devices. I started taking apart my Dad’s watch when I was 3 years old. However, I couldn’t get it back together until I was 5. That’s how my mechanical engineering background started.
“The first time I wired 110 volts was when I was 6 years old. My neighbor next door wanted to put lighting in their playhouse, so I did that. I learned how to weld when I was 8. My eighth grade science project was a refrigeration system. The teacher didn’t know what it was, so I had to explain it to him.”
As a student at Philadelphia’s Archbishop Wood High School in the early 1970s, Schoenfellinger went from accompanying his Dad to work to working alongside him.
“My father did a couple things because he worked for small facilities. He was an expert at curing – his nickname when he was working was “Pickle John” because he developed cure formulations for companies. He worked for Empire Foods, then with the Formost Kosher Sausage Company. When I worked for Formost in the summers, I worked with him. In addition to curing, he did the maintenance there. So in the summers during my high school years, I did maintenance and ran the packaging department.”
It wasn’t long before Schoenfellinger’s career in project engineering took off.
“After high school, I went to Penn State for a couple of semesters of electrical engineering. At that time, Formost was owned by Colgate Palmolive, which also owned Hebrew National Foods. So I became involved with the Hebrew National facility in New York. After a couple of semesters, I left college and became a project engineer for Hebrew National. I did special design projects and capital projects. In the late 1970s I moved to the Hebrew National headquarters in Maspeth, New York.”
In 1980, Schoenfellinger moved back to the Philadelphia area, where he consulted for small meat companies. In 1981, he landed at Sandy Mac Foods in Pennsauken, New Jersey, working as engineering manager until Sandy Mac changed hands. In April, 1990, he made the move to Dietz & Watson. The rest is history.