Toni Lawson ’99March 24, 2016
SUNY Cobleskill Alumnus Recognized in Ontario CountyApril 5, 2016
Alumni Spotlight: Jeffrey Heiser
Science Lab Technology, Class of ‘76
Vice President of Manufacturing, Beech-Nut
Jeffrey Heiser has discovered a remarkably simple strategy for attaining business success: Do everything.
When Jeffrey Heiser graduated from SUNY Cobleskill in 1976, he had his life all planned out: He’d get a job at the water sewage treatment plant in his native Canajoharie, rise through the ranks, get married, buy a house, have kids…perfect.
Except there were no jobs to be had just then; the plant was full up. This left Jeffrey with his new
associate degree in Science Lab Technology and, apparently, no good place to use it.
He was rescued (fittingly enough) by Lifesavers. Then a division of Beech-Nut, Lifesavers had an hourly job opening that consisted of catching grains of sugar in a fiberboard drum. “It wasn’t much,” Jeffrey recalls, “but it was something. It was what I needed – a start.”
After a few months of corralling sugar, he was asked whether, given his science background, he would like to transition to a position in Quality Control. “I said ‘sure,’ and soon I was on the factory floor auditing processes for the manufacture of Bubble Yum Bubble Gum,” he says, “which isn’t quite as sophisticated as it sounds. Making gum, it turns out, isn’t a real tidy process. But again, okay, I’ll do it…what’s next?”
Before long, Jeffrey was given a supervisory job in the manufacturing unit, working the third shift with 100 employees reporting to him, all of whom knew more about how things worked than he did. But that job soon opened a very important door.
"At Cobleskill I had to develop people skills. I've used those skills ever since."
“I began to have contact with
people,” he explains, “which
really broadened my horizons.
Eventually I became part of
the team that launched the
sugarless version of Bubble
Yum. Corporately speaking, it
was a big deal.”
But it wasn’t to last. The Lifesavers division announced
that it was moving out of state, and Jeffrey was
asked to stay on through the company’s staged
departure from its Canajoharie factory as a supervisor
of sanitation operations, once again on the third
shift. When, after a year, the factory doors closed for
good, he was fortunate enough to find a position as
housekeeping supervisor at Johnstown Hospital.
“I know it may sound like a cliché, but I was learning
a lot from being in all these different jobs, in all these
different work environments. I didn’t look at any of it
as wasted time,” he says. “It was just a matter of one
opportunity leading to the next.”
Before long, however, cruel fate intervened again:
The hospital closed when the State of New York
determined that the area’s in-patient bed-count was
too high. Facing unemployment once more, Jeffrey
inquired about a job at Beech-Nut on the advice of a
friend who worked there. Soon he was working as a
supervisor in their packaging department.
In his three decades with the company that have
passed since then, Jeffrey’s corporate odyssey
has taken him through such positions as head of
operations for packaging and maintenance, manager
of cereal operations and,
eventually, plant manager of
the entire Beech-Nut facility at
Canajoharie. Today he is Vice
President of Manufacturing
for the Beech-Nut company
as a whole.
Jeffrey is also a consistent donor
to SUNY Cobleskill. And how
does he look back on his school
40 years after graduating? “I got
a broad and excellent education
there,” he says. “I learned a
great deal about science and
nature. The science part has
helped me in business. The
nature part exposed me to
things that I share now with my children.
“But maybe most important? I grew up on a farm
and had never had much exposure to people from
different places with different cultures. At Cobleskill I
had to develop people skills, like listening and finding
commonalities and having empathy. I’ve used those
skills ever since, everywhere I’ve been. I really don’t
think I could have progressed very far without them.”