Inherent Talent and Learned Skills: a Requiem for Bob Peterson

Robert (Bob) L. Peterson
Although requiem is music to commemorate a death, I offer this song of words to honor the memory of Robert (Bob) L. Peterson, an industry pioneer who passed from this life on May 4, 2004 at age 71 — ending a seven-month battle with cancer. In this life, he defied convention in pursuit of greatness.
IBP inc., the company that started life as Iowa Beef Packing, grew into the world’s largest beef-and-pork company under the management of Bob Peterson, thereby justifying the evolution of the corporate name depicted as an acronym. Peterson, who worked in a feedlot in high school, joined IBP in 1961 as a cattle buyer. By 1981 he was chairman and CEO of the company whose 9,500 employees had multiplied into nearly four times as many by 1996, when I first encountered him. He was a man whose reputation preceded him as a hard-boiled corporate type, who chewed incompetents for breakfast and spat them out at lunch. I would not be one of them, so my homework on IBP — with a management labeled arrogant and predatory — was most thorough.
I asked him how he felt about criticism of IBP to which he answered: “To all those who say we are big and that’s why we are successful, just remember that we started with a $300,000 loan, killed 800 a day, and thought we were doing OK. All those hills, bridges, or walls that one has to climb over — we have done that. Sometimes we landed in the middle of the creek, ended up in quick sand and mud holes. We just clawed our way to the top. And there was nobody sending money during that period of time or cheering us on either.”
Gaining access to pioneers, who stimulate change for the good of mankind, is a tremendous reward for a practicing journalist. Over many years of interviewing the famous and the infamous, I still find myself in awe of those from all walks of life blessed with inherent talent augmented by learned skills. Bob Peterson is among them.
In 1999, he honored our request to participate in one of this magazine’s promotional ventures in which he listed the Bible as his favorite book and his most admired heroes as General Patton, President Truman, his dad, and his high school coach.
He ascribed these principles as his beacon to success: “Truth. Be up front, blunt, and clear. Take a position. Lead, don’t follow. Be fair. Be firm. Teach. Don’t tear down. Get to work early, do something, and then leave late. If you don’t care who gets the credit, you can go a long way.”
Peterson made a lasting impression on Tim Schellpeper, a former IBP salesman and now vice president of distribution and logistics for Farmland Foods Inc., who says he keeps Peterson’s words in his office files.
“His presence, intensity, and knowledge of the business impressed me along with his attention to detail,” Schellpeper says. “These were noticeable attributes at the time to a young guy like me.”
Schellpeper once saw Peterson in a pensive stance outside the building at IBP corporate headquarters in South Dakota. “I was sure he didn’t know who I was, but he told me the flowers looked good and went on his way. I had heard that he believed that appearance reflected the caliber of a company.”
In one of his how-to-live-well tips, my own father advised me not to forget that though I might only be one person to the world, I could mean the world to one person.
Enough said, except heartfelt condolences again to Bob Peterson’s family and the friends and colleagues in the meat industry who will miss his vision and wisdom.
We also extend condolences to James Holland, a veteran meat-industry salesman with Inovack Vector Inc., whose sister Fern Holland lost her life in Hillah, Iraq where she was shot to death along with two other humanitarians who shared her selfless commitment to human rights. At age 33, Holland used her law degree in service of others, especially in Africa, Russia, and finally in Iraq as a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority, seeking justice and opportunity for Iraqi women.