Mike Helgeson has had a long career in the poultry industry — more than 40 years in the business, with 21 of those as the CEO of St. Cloud, Minn.-based GNP Company. As 2014 draws to a close, Helgeson has announced his retirement, and in November, he officially handed over the reins to Steve Jurek, a 37-year company veteran who becomes the new president of GNP Company.
Mike Helgeson and Steve Jurek sat down with Andy Hanacek during his visit to discuss the year of transition after the transaction with the Maschhoffs business and the future plans of GNP Company in terms of expansion and innovation.
Yet, one shouldn’t expect much fanfare or an abrupt shift in strategy, Helgeson and Jurek both admit. Instead, they say, expect this pioneering chicken processor to continue along its growth path, focusing on customers and consumers, and advancing its operational skills.
“I’m deeply committed to preserving the values on which GNP Co. was built — the values of safety, quality, innovation, respect and integrity,” explains Jurek. “I have worked closely with Mike and Tim Wensman [executive vice president ofProcessing and Supply, previously for Customer Processes] for the last 20 years, helping set the strategy of the business, and we are 100 percent behind it. So, I don’t see our customer-focused strategy changing.”
When one considers the success that GNP has had over the last several decades — nearly quadrupling its annual sales numbers during Helgeson’s tenure — it stands to reason the strategy won’t veer far from its planned path, particularly when you consider some of the unique challenges the company faced.
Certainly, GNP Co. has not been immune to the wild rides the economy has given the industry over the past several decades. However, a serious fire at its Cold Spring, Minn., processing facility in 1998 created an unprecedented roadblock, and the event sticks in Helgeson’s mind as a moment of truth.
“The scope of the fire was unknown and the impact was unknown initially, but a portion of the plant did suffer very severe fire damage,”
he recounts. “We were fortunate to have had a quick response from the fire departments, which helped contain it to that area, but throughout the plant we suffered smoke damage so it was a major recovery.”
Helgeson beams when he discusses how well GNP’s team members responded to the aftermath of the fire.
“Our team members stepped up and worked together as a team. They volunteered to go to other locations to shift product around, and they helped clean the plant,” Helgeson says. “We were able to start processing in about two weeks on a limited basis, and we were back in full production in about six weeks, which was really a credit to our team.”
In some ways, the fire acted as a catalyst for the development of an industry-revolutionizing move, as soon after, GNP Co. committed to expanding the Cold Spring facility in a major way.
“We then did a major expansion of Cold Spring, which positioned us to do a rollout of our fixed-weight scannable product line into the full market,” Helgeson says. “Thinking back, we were the first in the industry to really develop and launch a full line of fixed-weight scannable tray-pack products. It was an industry mover, and I think it’s been a huge part of our growth and success.”
This wasn’t the first time GNP had made a significant move in order to further its prospects. Jurek recalls the acquisition of, and subsequent capital investments made in the Arcadia Fryers business in 1993, ranking it among one of the most strategic investments the company has made.
“It allowed us to expand into our foodservice and deli business segments, and [since the acquisition,] we’ve more than tripled the volume of the operation and put in a state-of-the art feed mill, hatchery and plant,” Jurek says. “All the facilities were in need of upgrading which is where we invested significant capital over the years to really make all of the facilities state-of-the-art.”
While many of these “big news” items hit prior to the turn of the century, it’s not as though GNP has rested on its laurels in the 2000s. The Just BARE line of all-natural, humanely raised chicken was launched in 2008 to great fanfare, and Jurek says the company continues to see “strong growth and interest” in the line.
In 2013, GNP Co. was acquired by Maschhoff Family Foods, a vertically integrated, family-owned pork production network based in Carlyle, Ill., a move that both Helgeson and Jurek view favorably for the GNP business moving forward. For Helgeson, the transaction means a better future for all parties involved.
“I’m still concerned about the company and its future, but I also feel we have a partner to work with to ride out the swings and help through those twists, as well as to help grow the company going forward,” he explains. “For me it’s an opportunity to step back a little further from what we’ve been involved in. … I’m still very much concerned about the health and safety of our team members and growers, as well as producing quality products for our consumers, but knowing that we’ve got somebody else kind of sharing that concern is a big relief.”
As Jurek mentioned previously, the overall strategy of GNP Co. won’t diverge much from what has been in place for years. Therefore, while the past is rarely a perfect image of what’s to come, in GNP’s case, it can be used as a solid prognosticating tool for the innovation emerging from St. Cloud.
“We want to continue to grow … as a business in order to meet [customers’] needs,” Jurek says. “Plus, along the way, we want to continue to grow our people. We want to give them opportunities and continue to engage them. Part of that is really working on innovative processes and products, so our customers continue to have new and different things for consumers.”
The innovation pipeline already is filled and flowing nicely, Jurek adds, both on the product and process side.
“On the process side, we continue to automate and we continue to look at vision systems and replacing the human [effect on quality and consistency],” he says. “We’ll continue to look at robotics and water-reuse systems as well.”
Meanwhile, GNP has focused its efforts on understanding the end consumers of its products in order to provide more relevant items to the marketplace.
“Packaging is a big area of opportunity,” Jurek states. “Our consumers really want a package that is very friendly to them — they want to be able to see the product that they’re purchasing — so it’s about showing them the product that they’re buying and making sure that our product lines continue to evolve to meet those needs.”
At the moment, GNP has its focus on supporting two opportunities in the marketplace currently — its new Just BARE organic line and its value-added, further-processed line, which includes frozen chicken patties and fresh chicken sausage products. The Just BARE organic line launched in October 2014 and gives the company another talking point with customers who are looking for a wider variety of chicken product options from GNP Co.
“We see organic continuing to grow — it’s a very small sliver of the market right now, but it will grow,” Jurek explains. “The other thing we see is, customers are also wanting to consolidate suppliers where they can, so if we have an organic offering, we can deliver on our ‘good, better, best’ product strategy.”
Meanwhile, the further-processed items such as the patties and sausages, will remain a focus where consumers demand them. Jurek says the company analyzes its use of resources in these areas and will do what makes most sense for consumers
“Our value-added products certainly have growth opportunities,” he says. “We generally start a new product at a co-packer or our Luverne (Minn.) facility, gain distribution and volume, and then bring it into either our Arcadia or Cold Spring facility.”
The company currently features three varieties of chicken patties and four fresh sausage varieties, but more flavor combinations were hinted upon during The National Provisioner’s visit to the Cold Spring facility in October 2014.