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Kevin Imm has milk in his blood.

He began at Clover Stornetta Farms as a 12-year-old, scooping ice cream at the Sonoma County Fair.

Over the next three decades, he would rise through Clover's ranks, becoming CEO of the family-owned milk processor five years ago.

"I've done every job here," he said.

But Imm, 43, will leave Clover at the end of the year to pursue a long-held dream.

He's going back to school to become a teacher.

"I have 20 years left in my career," he said. "If I don't go now, I'll never go."

Imm, who has coached kids' sports for years, said he realized teaching is his true calling. He plans to finish a master's degree in business and get a teaching credential. If he lands in the upper grades, he'd like to teach business or math.

"I knew 10 years ago this is something I wanted to do," he said. "I want to inspire young people to fulfill their dreams."

He has no illusions about the transition.

"You go from CEO wages to teaching wages," Imm said. "That's a bold step. But it feels right."

Imm guided Northern California's largest independent dairy processor through a period of change, said president Marcus Benedetti. The company completed an $11 million renovation of its Petaluma processing plant while he was CEO.

"He's been an amazing asset for Clover," Benedetti said. "He presided over unprecedented growth in our company's history."

Clover supports Imm's decision, Benedetti said. "We understand that he needs to follow his heart, and we stand behind him."

Imm belongs to one of Clover Stornetta Farms' founding families. His father, Gary Imm, and five partners bought the business in 1977, and Gary Imm still serves on the board.

Clover traces its roots to the early 1900s, when Petaluma Cooperative Creamery began distributing Clover brand products.

When a 1975 fire destroyed the Petaluma creamery, the co-op decided not to rebuild it. The new owners bought the wholesale distribution business from the co-op and Sonoma's Stornetta Dairy, forming Clover Stornetta Farms.

The business buys milk from independent dairy farms in Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Clover consolidated its processing and distribution in Petaluma in 1984.

Today, Clover produces 500,000 gallons of milk each week and distributes its products in California, Arizona and Nevada. Its product line includes yogurt, cheese, ice cream, butter, sour cream, cottage cheese and eggs.

In recent years, Clover has moved into organic dairy products, which now represent about 40 percent of its business. The company has nearly 200 employees and generates about $125 million a year in sales.

Kevin Imm joined the business full time in 1989, working as a salesman, distribution manager and operations manager before becoming a senior executive. As CEO, he's in charge of production, distribution and finance. Benedetti is responsible for sales, marketing and strategic planning.

With Imm's departure, Clover will eliminate the CEO position. Clover has named Matt McConnell its new director of operations, and Mkulima Britt will become vice president of finance and operations.

Imm is leaving Clover in good shape, he said: While the economic downturn has affected sales growth, Clover is still making a profit.

"I'd never have gone if things hadn't been in order," Imm said. "We have a super-strong brand, and the next several years look very promising."

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or steve.hart@pressdemocrat.com.