By Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief Photos courtesy of Tyson Foods

“Change is inevitable; growth is optional.” attributed to Walt Disney.

Many books, films and stories have been written about the effects of change on people some glorify change as an opportunity, while others promote loathing and fear of alterations to the status quo. Yet, one theme recurs across these works: Change is constant, and those who address it head-on typically fare best.

The protein industry certainly is no stranger to change. Market conditions, consumer demands, regulations and supply issues represent just a small portion of the fluid dynamics meat and poultry processors face on a daily basis.

More than two years ago, Tyson Fresh Meats, a division of Tyson Foods, saw an opportunity to capitalize on changes developing out of its control regarding cattle supply and consumer demand.

“We have a great deal of fully cooked facilities at Tyson, and we cook a lot of beef, pork and chicken we’re pretty well embedded in that business,” explains Charles Mostek, vice president, New Product Sales & Production, Tyson Fresh Meats. “But we always believed there was a gap there between conventional boxed meat and fully cooked, ready-to-eat products that we could fill.”

Meanwhile, geographic changes in the cattle supply chain feeding its Emporia, Kan., beef slaughter plant ranchers and feedlots had shifted operations westward began to force Tyson into a financial decision about the facility, says Gary Mickelson, director of media relations for Tyson Foods.

“In terms of the Fresh Meats operation, we’ve always prided ourselves on having our plants strategically located near the source of supply,” he says. “Unfortunately, in the case of Emporia, that supply started to decline, and was no longer sufficient enough to allow the facility to operate as efficiently as it once did.”

Convergence of need
Rather than shut the doors of one of its best-performing facilities, Tyson decided to fight change with change, and embarked upon a wholesale transformation of the Emporia facility. Tyson used the convergence of these changing metrics as an opportunity a foot in the door of the value-added, specialty-cut meats marketplace, where the Fresh Meats team believed the company needed to expand.

“[Emporia] performed consistently in the upper tier of our production measurements it was always in the upper echelon,” Mostek adds. “It performed at or above the Tyson Fresh Meats standards, which was one of the drivers that told us to figure out how to continue to utilize this facility.”

In early 2008, Tyson discontinued all slaughter operations at the Emporia facility which employed around 2,400 people at the timewith the intent of converting the facility to a specialty-cuts, value-added facility. Since then, the company states, it has been able to bring back 1,000 jobs through the facility, which has been growing as the company builds business and attracts customers. Furthermore, that original “foot in the door” has allowed the company to blow the doors off and quickly expand its value-added portfolio in the space of two years.

“The original change involved taking out the whole break line and converting it into a combo dump area to feed all the lines,” explains complex manager Mike Fiehler. “At that time, we started changing production lines on the processing floor, because we were getting some requests for our first attempt at value-added the three-piece top sirloin and the Flat Iron.”

Today, according to Mike Hippen, processing superintendent at Emporia, each of these lines can produce several hundred Flat Irons an hour. It’s a testament to the Emporia workforce, and its ability to apply old skill sets to new tasks.

“We were looking for people that had good knife skills and were trainable to take on multiple jobs,” he says. “Their skill levels are very high it doesn’t take long to train them. They just get more and more efficient.”

According to Hippen, for some high-volume products that Tyson introduces to its line workers, they can train as many as three lines at a time, and it takes less than an hour for the workers to really get efficient on the product. He chalks it up to the work ethic that each employee displays.

“They’re not ashamed of what they do out there,” he adds. “They all take pride in the work they do, and that starts from the top right on down.”

Soon after the production floor was converted, Fiehler adds, the decision was made to build a value-added room a transformation that took six to eight weeks. The facility since has added further-processing equipment (slicers, other packaging equipment) to the room much of it on wheels for easy transition on and off the lines.

When Tyson saw an opportunity in the corned-beef market, the Emporia facility was pegged for further transformation, and one of the former hotboxes was converted to handle the production. Today, it features two lines one for full brisket corned beef that is vacuum-packed, and the other for retail sale in multi-vac packaging with the possibility of additional lines being bandied about.

Emporia is in the process of revamping its ground beef production lines as well. The facility produces 2 to 3 million pounds of ground beef per week on three production lines, but expects more.

“We did major renovations to [ground beef processing] about three to four years before the change in the plant,” Fiehler explains. “Now, we’re in the process of procuring new equipment that will make us a whole lot more efficient. We’ll have more throughput, and we’ll be able to produce 100 percent exact-weight products, all done by mid-October.”

Despite all the changes that Emporia has gone through in the past two years, Tyson remains fully prepared for more transformation and welcomes it. Plenty of time and space exist at Emporia for Tyson Fresh Meats to grow the specialty-cuts program.

“We’ve got three-fourths of the plant that we can expand into B shift as growth in demand occurs,” Fiehler says. “We still have another hotbox and other rooms, but it would be quite costly to change them. It simply depends on the payback if it’s there, then we can invest the money.”