Mellisa Williams and coworkers.

Making a mentor

A fateful summer sparks Mellisa Williams' passion for mentorship

Mellisa Williams has an infectious smile. The kind that lights up a room when she walks in. Today, that room just so happens to be the butter room at the Land O’Lakes, Inc. plant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Walking from one packaging line to the next, chatting to everyone along the way, it’s clear she cares—about the plant, and about the people.

Our biggest Dairy Foods plant on the East Coast, Carlisle has two main products—butter and powdered milk. About 120 trucks bring 6.3 million pounds of raw milk to the plant every day. From there, just over 200 employees work 24/7 to process it into 56,000 pounds of butter a day. That all adds up to 70 million pounds of butter a year.

As plant manager, you might imagine Mellisa has a big job keeping things up and running. You’d be right, but she’s the first to tell you she couldn’t do it without her talented team.

“You need to be around to understand the condition of your facility and your people,” Mellisa says. “Hands down my favorite part of my job is working with my team. I look forward to seeing them and solving the mystery of the day.”

But Mellisa didn’t always see herself in this role. Her road to leading at Land O’Lakes was filled with chemistry classes, taking chances and the ongoing support of those around her.

Standing out

Mellisa grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, a town with strong ties to science and engineering, in particular aerospace and military technology. Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center are all based there, and the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) serves as a center for research in the area.

But even though science runs deep in the community, by the time Mellisa made it to her freshman year of high school, pursing it as a career path wasn’t on her radar.

“My parents had never been to college. No one in my family had. I’m first generation everything,” she laughs. “So, I was learning as I went.”

UAH advertised a summer program to introduce high school sophomores and juniors to the wonders of engineering. For 2-4 weeks, students were invited to come learn what they could do with an engineering degree. The summer leading into Mellisa’s freshman year, she decided to give it a go. This was her first big spark of interest in science.

Mellisa Williams With A Colleague In The Plant

“My family didn’t have money to send me to college,” she says. “I learned I could get a full-ride scholarship to three different Division I schools, but what does that mean? I didn’t know what to look for or what to do.”

But help was there. Through the university’s National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter, Mellisa found a key to her future success—mentors. The college students worked with the high schoolers, helping prepare them for college admissions and making sure they understood the importance of soft skills you don’t learn in a classroom.

“They took us on and mentored us, and really continued the mentoring process,” she says. “It’s been a pattern in my life, even to this day. That summer back in Huntsville, it was a pivotal moment in my life and I didn’t realize it at the time. It helped me understand what the possibilities could be.”

By the end of her sophomore year, Mellisa was well on her way to being college ready, with National Honors Society, band, track and other extracurricular activities on her resume.

“I had already done all the things I needed to do. Because of their mentorship, I was able to stand out against the competition. And it’s why I lead the way I lead. I ask myself, how do I make it easier for the next person, help them achieve their goals?”

Continuing education

Fast forward a few years, and Mellisa says she knew the moment she was going to become a manager. As a senior in the Chemical Engineering department, she was prepping for her final project, wrangling her team before their final presentation.  

“We had to present the problem and the rationale behind the solution that we had generated,” she says. “As we were working on pulling the data together for the presentation, the team was so focused on delivering the solution that we had forgotten that presentation was 90 percent of the battle.  Everyone on the team was really technical and didn’t have that soft skill, except me. I hadn’t even realized that was a skill set. That’s when I knew—I could lead engineers.”

After graduating UAH in 1998, Mellisa kicked off her career in the pulp and paper industry. Next was a move to roofing and building materials industry, before she entered the food industry as a plant manager in 2008.

But before she got to Carlisle, her education from mentors never stopped. Her first plant manager, Lucius Glenn, had a profound impact on her, as well as Al Murphy, her first vice president of human resources.

“Those two gentleman were the first two to make me look at my benchmark,” she says. “’Are you the best version of yourself?’ They taught me this idea. Today, it keeps me fueled and keeps me calm. When stress is high, I’m remind myself that I’m just growing. You have got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how you’ll be successful.”

After gaining experience as a plant manager, plant director and senior operations managers, on Jan. 13, 2014, Mellisa made the move to Land O’Lakes.

“My kids says, ‘Mom you used to make bread and waffles. Now you make butter!’ she laughs.  “It gives me pride to make a product that my family enjoys.”

Next generation

Back at the plant, Mellisa navigates her way through the expansive warehouse, through the butter room and heads into the stainless steel evaporate room. Nowadays, she says she spends most of her time pushing her leaders more than anything. She helps them with the issues they are facing, helps them drive solutions for their teams.

“I love the concept of teams,” Mellisa says. “Your role is to coach and provide resources. You don’t always need to jump in and be a doer. We’re going to grow each other. This is a two-way street. If I don’t know, I will find out. I am not going to pretend I have all the answers.”

It’s this philosophy of helping someone be their best that’s stuck with Mellisa, and she recognizes that learning it early made a big difference in her life. Bringing things full circle, for the past two years she’s made a point of mentoring young women at her local community thru her sorority and YWCA. And just like at the plant, she says she’s there to be a coach, not a boss.

“They don’t know what the possibilities are. I’m a female engineer, a female plant manager. If you say you can’t do it, you can’t do it. But if you believe anything is possible—it is.”