September 5, 2017

60 Years of Success

Great Lakes Cheese partners with The Fedeli Group to offer benefits that attract and retain employees.

You may not know Great Lakes Cheese by name, but you’ve likely tasted their products. Great Lakes Cheese, based in Hiram, Ohio, supplies 25 percent of all of the packaged cheese consumed in America.

Great Lakes Cheese started as a small Northeast Ohio company but has grown far beyond that, says Mary Jo Toumert, Vice President of Human Resources. Next year, the national packager of private label cheese bars, chunks, slices and shreds will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

The company offers a wide assortment of products, including Market Pantry Cheeses sold at Target and Adams Reserve cheeses. In addition, Great Lakes Cheese is a major supplier to fast-food giants such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell.

Swiss roots and American ambition.

The Great Lakes Cheese story begins with the arrival of Hans Epprecht in Cleveland from Switzerland in 1948. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Epprecht found employment at Brewster Cheese in Cleveland. In 1958, he began his own business delivering cheese to local stores and bodegas on the east side of Cleveland.

It was an interesting time in history, Toumert says. Grocery stores were expanding into the rapidly growing suburbs and Great Lakes Cheese was packaging cheese for the growing number of stores.

In 1963, the first Great Lakes Cheese plant was built in Newbury, Ohio. Over the decades, Epprecht built and acquired plants around the country to distribute cheese from coast to coast. Today, Great Lakes Cheese has nine plants: four in Wisconsin, two in New York and one each in Ohio, Tennessee and Utah. Four of those are super plants, high-speed manufacturers that can package in excess of 1 million pounds of cheese in a day.

Today, the company remains in the Epprecht family with the involvement of the second generation. Hans Epprecht’s sons, Kurt and John, are vice presidents and are involved in day-to-day management, while his daughter, Heidi Eller, is Chair of the Board of Directors.

“Our CEO, Dan Zagzebski, is not family, but he owned one of the plants (Lemke Cheese and Packaging Co.) we purchased in 2003,” Toumert says.

Taking care of employees

As owner of the company, Hans Epprecht decided to make its employees part owners, as well. It was very important to him that his employees share in the profits. The Great Lakes Cheese profit plan was started in 1971 and morphed into an ESOP.

His reasoning for implementing an ESOP was that if employees owned part of the business, they would act and think like owners on the job. An added benefit of the ESOP is that employee turnover is reduced. Long-term employees have accumulated significant accounts balances, according to Toumert, greatly assisting in their retirement planning.

Having experienced and skilled employees is one of the company’s strengths.

“This is a very fast-paced business and our workforce is very adaptable,” Toumert says.

In nearly 60 years in business, Great Lakes Cheese has never laid off an employee.

Benefits program reflects a caring philosophy

The Epprecht family’s philosophy of “sharing and caring” extends to its benefits offerings.

“Generally, we’re a little paternalistic,” says Toumert, an attorney who joined the company in its human resources department in 2009. Toumert was hired in part due to her background as an attorney with experience and expertise in employer side employment law. Great Lakes Cheese recognized the benefit of having someone on staff who could navigate the complexities of employment law and regulations.

Great Lakes Cheese offer an ESOP plan and provides very competitive health and welfare benefits. The company’s health plan is self-insured, and Great Lakes Cheese continually educates employees about using their health coverage wisely – when they need it, but not frivolously, “because when it’s used, it’s money out of all our pockets,” Toumert says.

Nathalie Lacouture, Senior Consultant in The Fedeli Group’s Benefits Division, is keenly aware of the Epprecht family’s desire to take care of employees. Lacouture started working with Great Lakes Cheese about the same time Toumert started as Vice President of Human Resources.

Toumert first called on Lacouture to assist in streamlining the administrative process for supplemental coverage.

“By consolidating the majority of their supplemental coverage under a single carrier, we were able to save them a substantial amount of money. I’ve been working with Great Lakes Cheese since that time,” Lacouture says.

In her role as employee benefits consultant, Lacouture has had the opportunity to travel to many of their production plants.

“The common theme I have seen at the plants is that employees are treated very well by management,” Lacouture says. “In turn, Great Lakes Cheese employees are very hard workers who demonstrate they care about the company through their dedication and consistent top performance.”

Creating synergy

Toumert says that Lacouture’s input has been critical to the success of their employee benefits program.

“They only bring us products that will enhance the benefits we’re making available to our employees,” Toumert says. “The Fedeli Group also helps us navigate the insurance, which gives us more time to concentrate on our business.”

“Our business is a penny business,” Toumert says. “Our margins are really, really tight. We want to be sure our employees are paid a living wage and that their share of health insurance premiums is affordable against that wage.”

Lacouture and her team bring forth detailed and insightful analysis. Fedeli team specialists with expertise in the areas of data analytics, regulatory compliance, insurance coverage and insurance placement are part of the service team. Robust and thoughtful analysis enables Great Lakes Cheese to make informed decisions.

With Fedeli’s involvement, Great Lakes Cheese is always aware of where they stand in terms of health care costs, budgets, and projections. “For 2017, we were able to have a zero percent cost increase,” Toumert says. “That is very helpful to our employees because that’s one bill they know won’t be going up.”

Open to change

Lacouture loves the fact that Great Lakes Cheese management is open to new ideas that The Fedeli Group brings to the table.

“We meet with them frequently,” Lacouture says. “If I need something from Mary Jo and her team, I will have it within an hour. They’re just a real joy to work with, and I enjoy collaborating with them to resolve any issues that arise.”

Likewise, Toumert says, “Nathalie gives us what we need, and always in a timely manner.”

As an added benefit, Great Lakes Cheese gives The Fedeli Group access to employees via onsite meetings to explain the benefits. Many employers don’t want employees taking time away from their jobs to attend enrollment meetings, but employee meetings enable employees to better understand their options and to make the best choices for their individual situations, says Lacouture.

“The Fedeli Group is our partner,” Toumert says. “They spend the time to get to know us. They’ve been great to work with.”


Voluntary benefits an added perk Included in the employee benefits package offered by Great Lakes Cheese are voluntary benefits. Voluntary benefits are payroll deducted, and employees can choose to purchase coverage such as Critical Illness, Accident and Whole Life Insurance. More than 35 percent of the employee population at Great Lakes Cheese participates in one or more of the options provided.

Voluntary benefits are additional financial protection in the event that an employee or their family member has a critical illness, accident or death. The employee receives a cash benefit directly from the insurance carrier that can then be utilized at their discretion. Oftentimes, the benefit is used to offset the cost of out-of-pocket medical costs such as copays and deductibles.

“Voluntary benefits have been around for quite awhile, but we’ve seen a resurgence in interest and in their popularity over the last seven to eight years, especially since the advent of the Affordable Care Act,” Lacouture says. “In today’s health insurance environment, employees often have higher deductibles and higher out-of-pocket maximums. We know that one of the biggest stressors employees have is related to their financial situations. Voluntary benefits are designed to financially assist employees and their families during challenging times.”

Toumert appreciates that The Fedeli Group’s Nathalie Lacouture suggested the company consider offering these benefits to round out their benefits package. These voluntary options have been critical in attracting and retaining employees, Toumert says.

“It’s a hedge against a catastrophic thing happening and not having costs covered by other insurance,” she says. “It’s been a very successful benefit for us.” For more information about Great Lakes Cheese, visit

For more information about how The Fedeli Group can help your company with its benefits offerings, visit

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