All in the family
The first-generation owners of a family-operated company typically put their all into its success. After all, they founded the company, so it only makes sense that they would do everything they could to keep it successful and growing. That dedication may not be present in the succeeding generations, though. The founders’ children or families may not have that same passion, or they don’t have the same grasp of the business. If that’s the case, a company may fold or be sold to a larger competitor after one or two generations have had their turn.
Fortunately for customers of Lake Geneva Country Meats Inc., the business is in good hands and shows no signs of slowing down. With the second generation of the Leahy family, the company has expanded several times, added a wealth of new products and developed an online store that delivers its gourmet sausages and other meat products to more people than ever before.
The company’s origins date back to 1965, when the late John Leahy purchased a slaughter business and eventually built a new location for it in Lake Geneva, Wis. As business picked up, Leahy and his wife, Rita, added on a retail store, producing their own beef and pork cuts, as well as sausages. At its peak, the company employed about 35 people. They started getting their four daughters involved in the business at an early age.
“I’ve been involved with the company my entire life, as this is a family business,” says Kathy Vorpagel. “My Mom and Dad had all of us girls working in the plant when we were young.” She recalls being paid a penny for every box she could assemble while she was growing up.
All four girls grew up, married, raised families and had careers, but they remained involved in LGCM through the years. When John Leahy died in 1997, Vorpagel joined her mother in the management of the business. In 2002, her husband, Scott, left the rubber industry to join her as director of operations.
Together they manage the family business. “I have the general knowledge particular to the meat processing part of the industry and manage the marketing, merchandising and customer service. Scott is completely in charge of the financial, structural and governmental side. He has been the driving force behind the successful completion of our two large remodeling projects and is our liaison with the USDA and is responsible for our HACCP programs.”
Growth in all divisionsLGCM has three separate areas of expertise - a slaughter operation, a sausage processing area, and a retail store - all of which take place in the company’s 16,000 square-foot facility. The company began as a custom slaughtering plant, and it retains that service to this day, slaughtering and processing cattle, hogs and sheep for local farmers.
“We run a processing schedule where we will slaughter between 18 to 20 cattle on a Tuesday and between 30 to 50 lambs,” Vorpagel explains. “Then on Thursdays we do the hogs, between 20 and 30 a day.” The meat is then aged, processesed and packaged to the customers’ specifications and frozen until the customer comes to pick up the boxes. She adds that the processed animals are typically meant for the family’s home freezer, though some of it is sold to friends or at farmer’s markets.
Vorpagel does no advertising for the company’s slaughter capabilities, but the demand is still so high that many customers are scheduling their appointments a year in advance.
“There are very few meat processing plants left [in the area],” she says. Plants that burn down in a fire aren’t rebuilt, and companies that can’t be sold to a new owner aren’t kept in operation. “It’s a small community of people who actually raise their own cattle for the home. Most of them are doing a dozen or so a year, and there are only five or six different plants to go within a reasonable driving expectation.” One of the company’s biggest challenges, she says, is to come up with ways to increase the company’s slaughtering capacity and keep up with the rising demand.
LGCM’s retail space, a point of pride for Vorpagel, is spacious, bright and clean, thanks to two expansions, the latest of which took place last July and added 3,000 square feet. The store features a large deli case and freezers filled with the company’s products, such as a variety of sausages, summer sausages, hams and ground beef.
Customers can also purchase items not made by LCGM, including fine wine and beer, cheeses, bread and meat products like turkey deli meat and Italian prosciutto. Those ancillary products offered at the store are designed to complement LGCM’s own products.
“We’re not a grocery store where you can pick up things like soap, but if you want to have spaghetti with your ground beef, we’ve got the sauce and the noodles,” she says.
The company is known for its quality beef, and Vorpagel says that locals shop there for quality steaks and other products. The company’s sausages are extremely popular as well.
Along with traditional sausages, innovative items like Cherry Bratwursts and Portobello mushroom and Swiss cheese brats are strong sellers. The cherry brat is made from an old family recipe, and the cherries give it a mild, sweet flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the meat.
For product development, the company has an expert that helps produce new varieties of sausages. The company’s plant manager, Jeff Schmalfeldt, is a 25-year veteran at LGCM and is also the chief sausagemaker. Vorpagel credits him for helping to grow the company’s product diversity.
“He supervises all areas of production in the plant and has superior knowledge of our entire operation from front to back,” she says.
Along with LGCM’s own store, the company distributes its products through a national meat provisioner in Madison, Wis., along with many small farm markets. The company is federally inspected, which allows it to ship product outside of the Wisconsin borders.
“Because of our close proximity to the state line of Illinois, this has served us well in being able to process for customers who need the federal legend,” Vorpagel says.
Through its Website, www. lakegenevacountrymeats.com, the company is able to ship its product from coast to coast across the country. Vorpagel says that some of the online customers have been to the company’s retail store before, but most have discovered the company just from searching the Web.
Vorpagel would like to increase the company’s online sales, but the cost of shipping has made it prohibitive for some would-be customers.
“Our product is perishable, and the shipping of that is challenging, as far as cost effectiveness,” she points out. “We’re not a gigantic mill that pushes [packages] out and has a large contract with UPS, so that’s one thing that’s a challenge.”
Along with southeastern Wisconsin, the company has a number of customers in northern Illinois. The Lake Geneva area is a popular summer destination for many tourists, who come up for visits or to stay at summer homes in the area.
“We get really busy that way,” she says. “The whole area does, really. Every business in the area picks up because of that.”
Keeping the tradition aliveWith its two recent expansions, LCGM has grown greatly enhanced its retail size and attractiveness. It also addressed some storage and production space issues as well.
“We have adapted smoothly to the increased volume of business due to the retail expansion and are quite pleased by the outcome,” Vorpagel says. “We needed to increase staff in the retail section and increase production to meet the needs of the extra volume in sales of product. It’s been fun and satisfying to hear the words of encouragement from our customers who are very pleased with our added space.”
The building is located on family-owned land, so the company has been able to enlarge the plant and can continue to make changes and expansions as the need arises. Along with having a solid location, it also has the benefit of many long-time employees, with tenure of 10 years or more.
Some entry-level positions remain difficult to retain, but many of the key positions have been stable, a remarkable feat for the industry. Having a well-trained retail staff is as important as having a well-trained processing staff, and Vorpagel states that her employees prepare for customers’ visits as if company were coming.
Rita Leahy, at 73, has semi-retired from Lake Geneva Country Meats but remains partly active in the business as needed. She still owns the business with her four daughters and son-in-law, Scott.
“My dad was the driving force behind it, and my mother kept him going. They were a very good pair,” she says, noting that along with running the business, they also raised four daughters who have been successful in their chosen careers and are still involved with the company. Vorpagel says that she learned a great deal about how to run the company from her parents.
“My mom and dad always valued the customer,” Vorpagel says. “From my mom, [I learned] to be honest and fair and to do what is right with the customer every time. In the long run, that always works out. And with the work ethic that my dad showed us, he trained us well.
“The company is still where it is because of my family,” Vorpagel adds. “In a family business you have your ups and downs. We’ve had our share of that, but thanks to the core strength of my mother and my sisters, that has brought it to the success that it is today.” IP