Ed Garrett earned leadership plaudits the old-fashioned way by learning the poultry business from the ground up –– supplying an answer to the question of whether outstanding leaders are self-made or born to achieve.
As the chief executive providing leadership for the processing side of the West Liberty Foods LLC (WLF) farmer-owned turkey cooperative based in Iowa, Ed Garrett primarily relies on team-based principles for coping in the ever-changing world that defines the poultry industry.
Unlike other poultry-processing executives, Garrett’s administrative duties require that he provide leadership on both sides of the vertically integrated WLF business. His employment of the fundamentals of collaboration sets him apart as a manager who values the merits of teamwork.
“In terms of measurements, my best day is when the guys in the plant succeed by working through a problem and coming up with a solution,” Garrett says.
Recalling an example, Garrett says it took nearly eight months for the production team to solve a packaging problem that had plagued the operation like a bothersome tick. “This issue involved coming up with the right concept for a customer’s project,” Garrett explains. “The folks on the floor were struggling with how to load trays and hit capacity efficiently. Finally, one of our hourly folks suggested a simple turn in the product to position it properly. When things go right on the floor, that is a best day because you know you have sent the right message.”
Although managing the processing operation is his primary job, Garrett never forgets that the foundation of the WLF business is its farmer-based ownership.
Farmer-owned cooperatives enable their members to diversify their investments in agriculture, not only to stabilize their farming income, but also to increase their business potential in a competitive environment. Under Garrett’s leadership, as the second in command initially and now the chief executive, WLF has grown into a major contender in the poultry-processing arena and is virtually a “sought-after” co-manufacturing partner in less than a decade of existence.
The NATIONAL PROVISIONER salutes Garrett as a leader extraordinaire.
Leadership building blocks
A tipping point, as defined by author Malcolm Gladwell, is a magic moment that changes the course of history in one way or another. As WLF president and chief executive officer, Ed Garrett is no stranger to the tipping point phenomenon. Consider this: When he graduated high school as a star basketball player and went to college to continue playing the game, he might have ended up in the NBA. Why not? He certainly had the height and weight appropriate for game success in the early 1970s. Moreover, as a strong forward he proved his mettle on the basketball court. “I look small next to the size of the guys playing that position in the game today,” he interjects chuckling.
That may be, but the game lives in the heart and soul of Garrett, who sees participating in athletics as character building. “Sports teach you how to be grounded and focused, and the way you should run your life,” he says. “I admire and respect certain major league coaches. They understand that the team is like a business. Coaches start each season not knowing what kind of talent they have, and they have to build a team.” Garrett has not abandoned playing sports, however, though these days it is the game of golf. Interestingly, Garrett never played golf in California, “home of some of the best courses.” He eschewed golf as a “crazy game of chasing a tiny ball” back then. He found his passion for the game in Iowa. Go figure.
Although Garrett has earned nearly all the credits necessary for his college degree, he has not pursued the sheepskin. A degree is important, but is no magic passport, which is not lost on Garrett for whom continuous education is a greater source of knowledge.
“Dedication to lifelong learning is the key to success,” he stresses.
Asked to impart wisdom to business school students as an imaginary professor-for-a-day, Garrett answers unhesitatingly. “I would tell them they had to earn what they wanted because there are no free rides. They must also be dedicated and willing to go the extra mile to get experience. I would always go back to treating people right. That means treating employees, customers, peers, and your superiors like family.”
Blowing out his knee playing basketball at Cal State was a tipping point for Garrett, forcing him to find another way to earn a living. Now, 29 years later, his resume includes stints at major chicken- and turkey-processing companies including ConAgra, Perdue, Zacky, Tyson, and Oscar Mayer as plant manager, superintendent, division manager, or vice president of processing. He even oversaw the construction of a new facility in Cleveland, MS, which he recalled as a memorable time.
“I arrived to find the ground filled with mud,” he says. “I had to build the facility, staff it, and then teach people how to cut the chicken. For four months, I managed construction during the day and at night taught people with no experience how to cut chicken.”
How this industry veteran from California found himself heading a major turkey-processing operation in the nation’s Heartland resembles the making of a patchwork quilt, in which numerous layers of fabric stitched together create an impressive design.
Following the misfortune interrupting his college education at Cal State in Fullerton, CA, a series of tipping points marked Garrett’s career, ultimately shaping his management style as a poultry-industry leader.
Garrett says faith jumpstarted his career, and it came from a poultry-industry executive at a Louis Rich turkey plant in Modesto, CA.
“The best thing that happened to me was meeting Hal Smith, who was president, because he took a risk by putting me in a supervisory position,” Garrett recalls. That may have been the best thing that happened to him the day he applied for and landed the job at Louis Rich, but the best thing that happened to Garrett came from the guidance of his immigrant parents [his mother came from Holland and his father from England], who taught him the value of hard work, self-discipline, fair play, and human dignity and recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
“When I think about heroes and heroines, I look at my parents, who came through Ellis Island with nothing much except the will to succeed,” Garrett says. “The way they were able to forge a life in America amazes me. They raised five children [Garrett is the youngest] on income generated from owning a flower shop. We did not have a lavish lifestyle, but we spent quality time as a family, often at the dinner table.”
Garrett is father to two sons from a previous marriage and two stepchildren in his current marriage. “I really have four children,” he emphasizes. His stepdaughter’s degree in biochemistry earned her a position at WLF as head of the company laboratory with no input from him. In fact, he rejected a salary proposal as too high without knowing the name of the candidate.
Outside his home, Garrett learned that the most effective leaders gain insight and sensitivity by working in the trenches as troop members. This concept crystallized for him as sanitation supervisor on his first job.
“I used to eat my lunch and spend my breaks with the hourly employees,” Garrett says. “I was criticized for doing that because it was viewed as a bad way to manage. I earned the respect of my people and I learned just how hard it is to work in a poultry plant. I believe you have to be with your crew.”
Much is required of those occupying the seats of power, to be sure, which is not lost on Garrett. He knows his success depends upon the respect of those under his leadership, as well as those to whom he reports.
The WLF story
The company carved a niche for itself on the basis that co-manufacturing of further-processed meats was a trend whose time had come. Major customers now include Subway, Wal-Mart, Denny’s, and Costco grocery stores to whom WLF supplies more than 2.5 million pounds of sliced, ready-to-eat turkey, chicken, pork, beef, and cheese weekly.
Most major food companies operating at capacity in the early- to mid-’90s sought other outlets to meet production needs that did not require capital investment in plants. Moreover, some of these same companies shifted to a sales and marketing concentration rather than plant production. Add to these factors the escalating food-safety issues related to contaminated products and massive product recalls, and it makes sense that such a co-manufacturing venture seemed a niche waiting for willing players.
Enter West Liberty Foods, born when a group of growers of turkeys and other farm products started the company as the Iowa Growers Cooperative to save themselves and their West Liberty hometown from the threat of economic erosion. At issue was the pending loss of the Philip Morris Companies’ Oscar Mayer plant, earmarked for sale or else closure. The plant’s history dated back to 1943, when Louis Rich Sr. moved in to operate his produce company that ultimately became a major vendor for area farm products.
Defying the odds
When 47 turkey growers in Iowa put their minds and money together and saved their industry from becoming another American farming casualty, they added a new chapter to agribusiness stories. Operating as the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative, the farmers secured financing from a variety of public and private sources including their own pockets to generate a $14 million financial package. They hedged their bets by banking on the purchase power of consumers and a cycle of stable raw material market prices. The stakes were high, to be sure, given that turkey is big business in Iowa, which is the 10th largest producing state. The tipping point came from a 1996 Iowa law making it easier for farmer groups to invest in processing businesses. Unlike traditional grain- and farm-supply cooperatives common in rural Iowa, the turkey producers’ cooperative represents a new generation in farming creating new opportunities for farmers to reinvent the entrepreneurial spirit, once the backbone of the nation’s agribusiness industry.
Today’s WLF operation is a model in processing and marketing achievements. The business includes three processing facilities capable of annually converting 4.5 million heavy toms — equaling 180 million pounds — raised exclusively by farm members, and an employee base of more than 1,500 people – triple the 1996 number when WLF opened for business.
A relatively new slicing plant in Mount Pleasant, IA, is the centerpiece of the operation. “This was my baby from start to finish,” Garrett boasts. “We are convinced we have built a facility capable of producing the safest possible product for our customers. We take all the risks because we not only have a unique plant, but each room in it is also unique. We put time and resources behind our business to give ourselves a fair shot at meeting the true needs of our customers.”
Convincing the WLF board of directors to invest the necessary funds to build the facility is another testament to Garrett’s leadership abilities.
“I ran the concept by buyers and business people I knew and had worked with over the years, so I knew they would support a plant like Mt. Pleasant,” Garrett explains. “The board was also comfortable with my background and my experience. They understood that the single risk in slicing is a food-safety issue. The facility was the right thing to do.”