By Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief | Photos by John Shipes, Shipes Studio
Any sports fan knows that the difference between being a playoff-caliber team and a champion often can be something as simple as team chemistry. In the meat-processing industry, the same can happen.

In the case of Henderson, Texas-based Sadler’s Smokehouse, success had come in the Southwest regional marketplace it served, but the company appeared capable of so much more, says Terry O’Brien, who took the reins as CEO of Sadler’s after its acquisition by Wholesome Holdings Group LLC and Brazos Private Equity Partners in 2007.

“We certainly knew of the business and admired it from afar,” O’Brien says. “We have always intended to preserve the best parts of the Sadler brand legacy such as high quality, focus on customer service. We’ve always planned to retain those parts and then add the missing pieces needed to take the brand coast to coast.”

Company founder Harold Sadler thinks the company’s new direction, as laid out over the past two-and-a-half years, makes a lot of sense. Backing up his opinion is the fact that he has remained on the Board of Directors, while his son, Randy, and grandsons, Cody and Seth, stayed to take on executive positions with the company.

“I think there’s still plenty of room for growth,” he explains. “There are a lot of areas we’re not saturated in, both in foodservice and retail. There’s still a lot of room to grow.”

Investment into areas such as research & development as well as marketing and sales should help keep Sadler’s on the upward trend it has followed since the acquisition. Everything that has been added, says Greg Klein, executive vice president of marketing, was meant to accentuate the positives already in place.

“The company was successful and would have continued to be successful, but now it’s just at a different level in terms of product mix, packaging and brand support,” he explains. “The neat thing about it though, is that Sadler family members have really melded with the people who were added to the team to help the company grow.”

Because of that teamwork, Sadler’s has the ability to expand its customer base, Klein says.

“We expanded the product line beyond simply barbecue, to pit-smoked meats that don’t necessarily carry the barbecue moniker,” he says. “We’ve expanded in proteins from mainly brisket into pork, turkey, chicken and Hispanic products.”

Invest to advance

The current driver of Sadler’s success appears to be an innovative string of R&D advancements in recent years, from adoption of high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) for its products to development of new presentations and portion sizes for its products.

“[HPP] really is a game-changer for our company,” Klein states. “Dealing with meat, our shelf-lives have literally been doubled. As we try to expand from here to the East and West coasts, it’s just been huge.”

Although HPP appears to be more of a process improvement focused around food safety and extended shelf-life, Marc Gaddis, vice president of research & development says that Sadler’s R&D team takes the technology one step further.

“Few teams are able to look at innovative technology and say, ‘Now I need to leverage it against new products and continued competitive advantage’ we do that,” Gaddis says. “HPP is a great thing from a food-safety standpoint, but it also opens up a whole realm of what is possible on the development side, because we apply that technology in creating new products through food safety and in a safe manner.”

Another feather in the cap of Sadler’s R&D team which has benefitted from a serious investment in manpower and budget boost recently has been the string of new-product successes that the group developed out of early research collected shortly after the acquisition was finalized. O’Brien says Sadler’s is now seeing the return on some of that early investment today.

“Eight months ago, you saw some of the early fruits of our research, which was to offer the consumer smaller entry packages into the Sadler’s brisket, and also to offer the consumer Sadler’s pit-smoking on pork and poultry items,” O’Brien explains. “We also launched some innovative packaging in the meal solutions area, where we’re able to offer the consumer very, very premium steakhouse quality with a side dish at a great price.”

The launch of Sadler’s Dinner For Two items has been well-timed, and O’Brien says they’ve taken off and helped the company get its brand name out across the country. Klein explains that the fully cooked entrée category needed innovation, and Sadler’s delivered.

“The idea was to target single- and dual-person households with a just-right size of product, and pair the meat not only with a sauce which we’ve done before but also pair it with a side dish, in a very convenient, high-quality presentation,” Klein says.

According to Gaddis, Sadler’s has focused upon as its own strengths to help drive the innovation and produce successful launches.

“In the end we deliver, I believe, a restaurant-quality meal made in a batch-size style which gives you consistent quality in an innovative package that folds into a food-safe product as well,” he explains. These standards represent the down-and-dirty details of Sadler’s go-to-market strategy of becoming more than just a company known for great barbecue, O’Brien adds.

“Our contention is that we can offer a better value than restaurant dining, allowing the consumer to have that restaurant quality in their home, and be very different from the typical, more ordinary, medium- to low-quality fully cooked grocery product,” he says. “We’re aiming for restaurant quality in that fully cooked section. It’s value versus the restaurant meal.”

Sadler’s also recently launched its Slow Roasted line, which hits upon several of those standards the company strives to attain with each product, as Gaddis describes.

“It’s the slow-cooked meal taken to a whole new level, if you will,” he says. “The beef tips and rice is the same quality of product you’d get if you braised the beef and stewed it in rice all day long.

“That’s what we do: We strive to take a value price point and deliver on a restaurant-quality, slow-roasted meal.”

Although the Slow Roasted line is not pit-smoked, it is a good example of how the company is attempting to innovate in a category while offering a meat, sauce and a side dish together in the same tray, Klein adds, something Sadler’s competitors in that category are not currently doing.

Team orientation

Sadler’s overarching mission — the one goal toward which the team strives encompasses the details reflected in its product-development strategy. That goal, O’Brien says, is to be “the best premium, smoked meats company in the U.S., period, bar none.”

That mantra has been percolated down the ranks from Day One of the acquisition, he adds, and its success received a major assist through the unique dynamic between Sadler’s legacy team and its newcomers created in the wake of the acquisition.

“It started with Harold [Sadler] and I,” O’Brien states. “We have a very solid mutual respect and working relationship in which we complement each other, and … having him still involved means a lot to me.

“We agree most of the time,” he adds, “and when we don’t, we still have dinner together.”

To be sure, not every business transaction in which there is change at the top runs as smoothly. However, as O’Brien says, he and Sadler share many of the same ideals about growing the business.

“The quality and consistency of the product that comes out of our barbecue pits is the bedrock of the business,” Sadler says. “You can always diversify and do other things that are successful, but at the end of the day, it’s the barbecue.”

O’Brien couldn’t be more enthused about the future for Sadler’s, given that the acquisition and 2009 recession are mostly in the rear-view mirror. Certainly, challenges sit on the horizon, but O’Brien believes Sadler’s is positioned, with its “One Team, One Goal” focus, to continue along a steep growth curve.

“Two-and-a-half years in, to be arm-in-arm, back-slapping with the family and everyone pursuing the new directions and embracing it, it’s unique in the industry,” he concludes. “There’s just a common set of values about high quality and customer service that has been a priority in my 22 years and in Harold’s 49 years, and we’re not going to get away from those values.”