AUGUSTA, MICHIGAN, U.S. — Emily K. Likens has been named president and chief executive officer of Knappen Milling Co., succeeding her father Charles B. (Chip) Knappen III, who is retiring following 46 years with the business.
Likens has been a member of the Knappen Milling board of directors since 2014, when a leadership transition began. She is married to Robert E. Likens Jr., who joined Knappen Milling in 2012 and currently is senior vice-president.
Likens attended the University of Arizona and later graduated from the Midwives College of Utah in Salt Lake City with an associate of science in midwifery degree. She has spent more than a decade in the midwivery field and headed Living Waters Midwifery LLC, a midwifery business based in Plainwell, Mich. In that role she helped with the delivery of many babies in homes in Michigan. Before returning to Michigan in 2012, Mr. and Mrs. Likens ran a martial arts business in Colorado.
The fourth generation of Knappen to lead Knappen Milling, Liken’s great-grandfather Charles B. Knappen established the business in 1929. According to a company history prepared by Likens, Knappen was an entrepreneur and farmer. He acquired a closed mill, and began shipping bran to Kellogg Co. in Battle Creek, Michigan, U.S., about 10 miles east of Augusta.
For most of its history, Knappen was unique in milling, producing edible bran as its principal product and flour as a byproduct.
Knappen’s son, Charles B. (Chuck) Knappen Jr., joined the business after returning from World War II, and additional grain storage was built in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1962, the original mill was replaced with a pneumatic mill, designed specifically for heavy bran production. It was not until the 1970s, that the company devoted serious attention to marketing its flour. Kellogg again emerged as a principal customer, incorporating Knappen’s flour into Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks cereals. Kellogg also was the principal customer of the company’s cleaned wheat, used for shredded wheat cereals. Knappen calls the clean wheat Sotac wheat. The use of an optical sorter beginning in the 1970s prompted the company to choose the name, an acronym for state-of-the-art cleaned wheat.
Chip Knappen succeeded his father as president in 1979, and in the early 2000s launched a three-year project to reflow the mill more conventionally when Kellogg stopped using heavy bran that had been Knappen’s principal product for decades. For the last 15 years, Knappen Milling has focused its production on soft wheat milled products, including cookie/cracker, cake flour and pastry flour and whole wheat flour. The company also continues to produce SOTAC wheat. The company’s customers are located across the United States, in Canada and Mexico.
According to the 2019 Grain & Milling Annual published by Sosland Publishing Company, Knappen Milling has 4,800 cwts of daily milling capacity and 2 million bushels of grain storage. Knappen mills both soft red winter and soft white winter wheat.
Likens said her interest in Knappen Milling and the milling industry date back long before her return to Michigan in the early 2010s.
“A lot of my identity is grounded in the mill,” she said. “When I was young, my father would come into work on weekends, and I would go with him. I’d be in the office and walk around the mill. People who worked in the mill in those days are supervisors now, people I’ve known 30 to 40 years. I’ve always wanted to be here, but there is value in having had the opportunity to mature. Timing was important.”
While Knappen is a multi-generational milling company, its identity has changed in different ways with each succeeding generation, Likens said. She is mindful of a distinction she will bring to the position of CEO as the only woman-owned and run milling company in the United States.
“My grandfather Chuck Knappen had this motto, ‘Give me an opportunity and I will make it work,’” she said. “I believe that motto encapsulates the entrepreneurial spirit and tenacity of all four Knappen generations. That is what we are doing at Knappen Milling, we are taking every opportunity and making it happen. This company’s inception occurred 20 days prior to Black Tuesday, and here we are 90 years later still milling wheat. Each generation has faced challenges and opportunities that have been the catalyst for change that redefines our niche as a company. As Knappen transitions in leadership with my dad retiring, our niche now includes the first Knappen woman as president/CEO Embracing these opportunities will continue to allow us to stay competitive in the milling industry.”