AUGUSTA, MICH. — Emily A. Likens has been named president and chief executive officer of Knappen Milling Co., succeeding her father Charles B. (Chip) Knappen III, who has been leading the company for the last 40 years. Mr. Knappen will stay on at Knappen in a lesser role, to provide support during this transition before retiring.
Mrs. Likens and her husband, Robert (Bob) Likens Jr., and their four boys moved back from Colorado for the family business. Mr. Likens joined Knappen Milling in 2012 and currently is senior vice-president. Mrs. Likens has been a director on Knappen’s board since 2014, when the leadership transition began.
Mrs. 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 and her Certified Professional Midwife credential. She has spent more than a decade in the midwifery field and is both owner and solo practitioner of Living Waters Midwifery L.L.C., a midwifery business based in Plainwell, Mich. In that role, she has provided midwifery care throughout the course of pregnancy, birth and postpartum within 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, Mrs. Likens’ great-grandfather Charles B. (Charlie) Knappen established the business in 1929. According to a company history prepared by Mrs. Likens, Charlie Knappen was an entrepreneur and farmer. He acquired a closed mill and began shipping bran to Kellogg Co. in Battle Creek, Mich., about 10 miles east of Augusta.
For most of its history, Knappen’s niche product in the milling industry was producing edible heavy bran as its principal product and flour as a byproduct.
Charlie 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 Froot Loops and Apple Jacks cereals. In June of 1972, Chip Knappen started his career at Knappen, working alongside his father. In the late 1970s Chip Knappen added the use of optical sorters, which had not been used in the industry at that time for the cleaning process. That prompted the company to affectionately name their product SOTAC wheat, an acronym for state-of-the-art-cleaned. With this cleaned wheat, Kellogg was able to use it for their shredded wheat cereals.
Chip Knappen succeeded his father as president in 1979, later becoming c.e.o. in the early 1980s. In the early 2000s, he launched a three-year project to reflow the mill more conventionally when the demand for heavy bran waned. For the last 15 years, Knappen Milling has focused its production on soft wheat milled products, including cookie/cracker flour, cake flour, pastry flour, light bran, high ash flour and SOTAC wheat. The company’s customers are located across the United States, 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 bus of grain storage. Knappen mills both soft red winter and soft white winter wheat.
Mrs. 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, Mrs. Likens said. She is mindful of a distinction she will bring to the position of c.e.o. as the only woman-owned and -run flour mill in the United States. Mrs. Likens said she was nominated to this position by her aunt, Sarah Knappen, who has been a member of the board of directors for decades.
“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 (the stock market crash of 1929), 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/c.e.o. Embracing these opportunities, growing and changing with the milling industry keeps us competitive.”