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Pharmacy degree yields to 'meaty career'

maas

Joe Maas, a 1981 UC pharmacy graduate, is vice president of manufacturing and production of JTM Food Group.

Joe Maas contends that if you surveyed a hundred people 20 or 30 years into successful careers, half might say they aren’t doing professionally what they studied in college. Joe himself is Exhibit A -- trained to supply pharmaceuticals to the sick, yet dedicated to supplying hamburgers to the hungry.

"I’m a card-carrying, licensed pharmacist, but I haven’t practiced pharmacy in almost 20 years," says Maas, Pharm '81. Instead, he found himself drawn to the family business that his father, Jack, started more than a half-century ago and which eventually became the international JTM Food Group. As vice president of manufacturing and production, Joe oversees the operations of the $110 million company based in Harrison, Ohio.

Maas' educational and professional paths were a function of family, finances and foodstuffs. His father and uncle owned the Delhi Horn of Plenty pony keg on Cincinnati's west side. Pony kegs were essentially small, neighborhood, family-owned grocery stores of a couple generations ago.

The family lost the store and Joe's brother, Mike, to a fire in 1970. The store was reopened in a new location as Jack Maas Meats as Joe was about to enter Elder High School. He had expected to continue working alongside his father and another brother after high school, but his father gave him an economics lesson.

"Dad sat me down and said, 'You can't stay in the meat store. It's barely supporting your brother and me. You need to go do something else.'"

His father suggested college, and that meant UC for a hard-working family of modest means. So Maas became a first-generation college student, continuing to work full time in the meat store while commuting to classes that would prepare him for a different career.

"It was clear to me from day one that I'd become a pharmacist," he says. "I liked and did well in chemistry at Elder. Both of my chemistry teachers were pharmacists. So was a good friend of my dad's, and I worked in his pharmacy part time. I had no reason to think that pharmacy wouldn't be my profession."

But once again, the Maas family's future -- and Joe's in particular -- was influenced by economics, in this case the double-digit inflation, interest rates and unemployment of the late '70s. "People have to eat, but they don't have to eat meat if money is tight," Maas says.

So the decision was made to get more restaurant customers and rely less on individuals shopping for their families. That led to Jack getting a loan to build a food-processing center to handle the new business. That's when the company became JTM Provisions, with JTM being Jack's initials.

The loan led to an ironic reprise of the “career conversation” between father and son, whose innate ability to fix equipment and keep things running smoothly had become invaluable.

“He saw the business expanding and said he needed me to stay,” Maas explains. “I replied, ‘Well, Dad, I didn’t really want to leave in the first place. Of course, I’ll help.’

“So I stayed while also working in a few different area pharmacies at night. I did that until JTM really broke through in the mid-’90s.”

Still, his UC education continues to pay lifelong dividends. Even though Maas doesn’t start his workday by donning a pharmacist’s white coat, he credits the math and science skills developed and sharpened at UC as pivotal to his daily work at JTM.

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Over the years, I've called on UC for technical assistance. We have hired many UC grads, and I've leaned on so many people I met through UC to help us keep the ball rolling here at the company.

-- Joe Maas, JTM Food Group

"Plus, over the years, I've called on UC for technical assistance. We have hired many UC grads, and I've leaned on so many people I met through UC to help us keep the ball rolling here."

That doesn't even count his most important UC-related contact.

"I was externing at the pharmacy in St. Francis Hospital during my last 10 weeks at UC," he recalls. "The hospital's IV department was part of the pharmacy. A young woman named Robin was an IV tech, and we started dating.

"As I approached graduation, she asked me which pharmacy I was going to work in, but I told her I was going to keep working at our family's struggling meat store." While that might have dismayed many girlfriends, by chance (or fate), Robin's father, who had died not long before, had been a meat cutter in Delhi.

"So she married me anyway, and it's worked out pretty well," says Maas. "Without UC, we wouldn't have met."

jtm plant

The JTM Food Group plant in Harrison, Ohio.

Maas remains involved with his college, and he is a long-time friend of the Winkle College of Pharmacy interim dean Bill Fant, who had been Maas' preceptor toward the end of his student days.

"At graduation, my father's camera broke so we had no photos from the day," Maas remembers. "Then about a month later, out of the blue, I get a letter from Bill saying, 'I know you probably have photos from your graduation, but here’s one more.' And he had enclosed what became my only graduation photo."

Maas envisions returning to pharmacy work in the future in a volunteer capacity, providing help where it's needed most. It's part of his sense of community and a way to further leverage his UC experience.

"UC meant the world to me. I developed some great relationships there and learned a tremendous amount.

"And I know first-hand that UC puts people to work. Cincinnati would not be what it is without UC pouring into the community all that it does."