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Photo of John Church
February 27, 2017

Chemical engineer serves the world by making food people love

Written By: Lexy Brodt

Engineering doesn’t teach you what to do; it teaches you how to think, says John Church, executive vice president of supply chain at General Mills.

Church, who was born in Boston, lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended high school in De Pere, Wisconsin, earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UW-Madison in 1988.

He has worked for General Mills ever since. Over nearly 30 years with the company, his work as an engineer has morphed into a career as an international businessman and corporate executive.

The skills he learned as a chemical engineer have followed him to this day. Even so, for Church, the most crucial part of the infamous chemical engineering summer lab was learning how to effectively make a point.

“The lab reports matter,” he says. “They teach you how to communicate. In the business world, everyone assumes they’re right. You have to be able to convince other people that you’re right. In summer lab, that was worth doing—convincing people that your answer was the right answer.”

Church began working for General Mills with a clear idea of what he wanted from his career. Accustomed to the world of science and the jargon of engineers, he liked the idea of representing a product—something that existed outside of the laboratory.

Like a ubiquitous breakfast cereal, for instance.

“The idea of being in consumer products—where people can see and relate to your work—was important,” he says. “Because when I was a chemical engineering student, no one knew what we were talking about.”

The adaptive nature of the industry—a marketplace that follows the ever-changing desires of the consumer—appealed to him. And opportunities for growth seemed limitless and diverse. For example, even though he worked for General Mills in research and development as a product developer and plant manager, he also gained exposure to the legal and marketing sides of the business. “General Mills never let me get bored,” he says. “I always had something exciting to do.”

In 1991, just a few years out of college, he led the development of Multigrain Cheerios, the fourth type of Cheerios in the world. A new product requires new plants, new suppliers, and new technology to make and distribute it. Church was at the forefront of these developments.

A few years later, he relocated from Georgia back to Minneapolis when General Mills acquired Pillsbury. His role was to lead the supply chain integration of Pillsbury and General Mills in North America. Coincidently, Church had interned at Pillsbury in research and development during the summer before his senior year of college.

Over time, Church continued to take leadership roles with increasing responsibility, working as vice president of engineering, adding procurement and logistics to his responsibilities and now, as the leader of the global supply chain, a position that he’s held for nine years.

In this role on the General Mills senior management team, he is accountable for more than half the company’s employees. Many mornings he wakes up early to call Europe or Asia, discussing challenges or aligning on strategy. If he’s not on the phone or traveling, he’s in meetings or coaching sessions, ensuring that his employees have the tools to make the right decisions and breaking down any barriers to their success.

“My job is to make sure that I can take what our business strategies and company strategies are and translate them into a technical and operations agenda for my team around the world,” Church says.

To this day, Church fondly remembers his time as a UW-Madison student: tailgate parties in his front yard for every UW-Madison football game, study breaks for Babcock ice cream, and walks down State Street. And he says he still draws on his valuable chemical engineering training, which allows him to adapt and react when the need arises.

“Engineering is about problem-solving, input and output, losses. All of those things apply to every situation there ever was,” he says. “Whether it’s a business process or chemical process, there are things I need to do to catalyze that reaction. The world is like a laboratory.”

Through our prestigious Founders Lectureship, Church returned to UW-Madison in January 2017 to give the talk, “Reflections of a UW chemical engineer: The real world is a lot like ‘summer lab.’” View a video of the talk here.