My entry into our industry back in 1970 came via livestock, specifically hogs. After growing up on a farm in West Texas and armed with a degree in Animal Science, I had no inclination to do anything other than work with livestock. For almost five years, I managed confinement hog farms and a small feed mill.

Then, unexpectedly, I found myself walking into the Jimmy Dean Meat Company sow kill sausage plant in Plainview, Texas, as the plant manager. I had no idea what a plant manager did, but it was a bigger job and more money, so I was all in! How that opportunity came about is a story unto itself, but suffice it to say, I was thrust into a completely new world.

That opportunity led to a new world for me, including beef, pork, turkey and further processing through various management positions with Jimmy Dean, Excel Corp. (Cargill), OSI Industries, and finally Butterball LLC. My wife of 34 years, Stacy, and our boys, Ryan and Robert, were my strongest supporters and with me lock-step on every move. We moved seven times living in five states with a three-year stint in Taipei, Taiwan.

Through my 46 years in the business, I’ve witnessed some key changes. Today, across essentially all proteins, the live animals are being harvested at 50 percent to 80 percent heavier weights and consuming 30 percent or so less feed per pound of gain. And the animals are leaner with less waste. How’s that for progress?

Along with the advancements in plant floor automation, real time management information systems, enhanced food safety, consistent product quality, top down commitments to associate safety as well as animal care and well-being, our industry is far more cost effective than ever.

Recent years have seen an explosion of sorts of what I considered to be niche markets —organic, natural, grass fed, antibiotic free, free range, non-GMO, etc. It’s great to see our industry rise to the challenge and provide what some customers clearly want and for which they are willing to pay the increased costs. Good for them! But in my opinion, the industry’s big job ahead is to continue driving efficiencies in the supply chain to provide a hungry world with safe, nutritious and affordable meat-based products.

All this said, the most profound experiences of my career have come from the opportunity to work with and learn from the industry’s greatest asset — the people. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

  • The Japanese taught me the importance of finding out what the customer wants versus trying to convince them what you already have is really what they want.
  • This is a labor-intensive business and you have to take care of your employees. If you don’t, someone else will.
  • Just about everyone who comes to work wants to do a good job. All they need are the tools.
  • Treat everyone with respect; they deserve it.
  • The least you expect may well be the most you get. Believe in people and have high expectations.
  • Make a list and do the least desirable first. It makes the rest a lot more fun.
  • Your job will take all you will give it. Leave time for your family and yourself.

Finally, during a discussion many years ago regarding replacing a key employee, Jimmy Dean stopped the conversation, looked at me and said, “Put your foot in a bucket of water, pull it out, and look at the hole that’s left. That’s how much you’ll be missed.”

Although I didn’t really think Jimmy meant me, I’ve come to understand no one is irreplaceable. I just hope I left things a little better than I found them.  NP