After growing the business, keeping up with technology, following government regulations and expanding into new markets, there comes a time when a meat processor wants to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor. It may be a full retirement, or it may be a part-time employment, or semi-retirement. In either case, this transition will largely depend on the next generation of ownership, in many cases a family member.

While growing up in the industry doesn’t necessarily guarantee future success, the sons and daughters of today’s company presidents are stepping up to ensure their companies remain in good hands.

Doug Hankes, vice president of operations for Galesburg, Ill.-based Thrushwood Farms, is 26 years old, and he jokes that he’s been involved with the family business for all 26 years. Really, he’s been working for the company full-time for four years. His brother Jeff, 24, is heavily involved with the plant and retail store while he spends more of his time in the office.

A year before joining Thrushwood Farms, Doug interned for a large meat packer in a case-ready plant. While he enjoyed the experience, he kept coming up with different research & development projects he wanted to do or ways to make the family business improve its yields or profit margins.

“I kept relating my internship back to home every day,” he says. Later that year, right before the holiday season, Thrushwood’s curing and smoking person quit, and Hankes came on board to help. He ended up spending much of the time at the service desk, talking to customers. One customer, an older woman who came in asking for Hankes’ parents, stands out in his mind.

“She was specifically asking for Jim or Kae [his parents],” he recalls. They were out of the office, but Hankes called them and got the story from his father. “My dad said she had been a customer for years and years, since we opened. Her husband had passed away, and he had known her husband very well. Dad always cut her a deal on a ham, because she had an extremely large family, and they didn’t have a lot of money.”

After Hankes had sold her the largest ham for a discount price, they talked, and the customer told him that it’s family who make a difference every day.

“I had never gotten the concept that we help make other people’s holiday meals into memories until I started talking with some customers over the holidays,” he says. “That was the turning point for me, where I realized we do something pretty special in Galesburg.”

After the holidays, Hankes and his brother, who were both attending the University of Illinois, decided to enter the business after graduation.

“We both agreed that there are a lot of opportunities in small businesses and the family business, and we had parents who were willing to let us have those opportunities,” he explains.

Ross Shuket, 22, and Seth Shuket, 27, serve as vice presidents at Old World Provisions in Troy, N.Y. Like the Hankes brothers, they both grew up in the industry.

“My father started me and my brother working in the back, cleaning up the racks and bins,” Ross recalls. “We worked our way up all the way to this point now.”

Shuket says that his job has primarily involved sales and marketing activities, but he and his brother have done whatever job needed doing in the business.

“Two weeks ago, I was on a sales trip to the Southeast. Last week, I was spending a lot of time doing marketing materials. This week, I’m serving in the production and operations side of things,” he says.

The two brothers represent the fourth generation in the meat industry and the third in Old World Provisions. Shuket worked for the company through summers and vacation in his high school and college years and came to the company on a full-time basis after graduating from Quinnipiac University with a degree in business management.

“It wasn’t like I just stepped on and said, ‘Hi, I’m the owner’s son.’” He says. “Everybody knew who I was, and they knew my capabilities.”

Smooth transition

Working closely with anyone can result in tension from time to time, and family is not an exception. Still, the next generation’s success in the business can be greatly assisted with mentoring and support from the parents.

Shuket credits his father, Mark, for sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the industry with this family. “He’s forgotten more things about this industry than I’ll ever know, and he’s always willing to share the knowledge that he has,” he says. “He’s really allowed us to take on important roles in the business and handed off a lot of responsibility. He felt we were ready. He’s not holding onto the business with an iron fist.”

One of Old World Provisions’ latest endeavors has been the acquisition of Fritz Helmbold, a hot dog processor also based in Troy. Part of the reasoning behind the acquisition, Shuket says, is to continue the company’s growth for the two brothers.

Thrushwood Farms has similarly undergone an evolution in the business. Doug and Jeff Hankes helped launch a new snack stick line and is doing more work with grocery store customers.

“We both have an idea of where we would like to go with the company,” Doug says. “Mom and Dad said, ‘If you want to put in the time and do all this work [with new ideas], we will back you on it.’”

The decisions are made with all four family members sitting down and talking things out. Hankes says that each person has their own perspective and can bring their own viewpoints and ideas to the discussion.

“I think that’s where we get some of our best ideas, making time to sit down as a family and make those decisions,” he says.