Technology and manufacturing feats go hand in hand for successful meat protein processing. Thanks to its mechanical innovations, Beef Products Inc. reigns supreme.
Eldon Roth steers onto Interstate 29 near the mighty Missouri River in his pickup truck, taking him and his passenger to South Sioux City, Neb., home to one of his company’s meat-processing plants — all of which are equipped with high-tech, highly imaginative machines.
However, do not describe Roth as an inventor as it will only vex him, setting him off in a manner contrary to his normal disposition of exuding humility and calm. He is OK with being thought of as somebody who takes existing concepts to new heights.
“You can say I am an innovator,” the 63-year-old entrepreneur allows.
Getting Roth to detail his journey from working as a young laborer in ice cream plants to owning his own business and developing machines for which he holds several U.S. patents can be confounding. He’d rather give the glory to others in his company.
It does seem fantastical that a man who is not an engineer by education or training is responsible for the design or modification of processing equipment in his company’s manufacturing facility, whose operation gives new meaning to the ground beef process.
He would be in good company with the likes of Thomas Edison, one of America’s greatest inventors, who gave the world the electric light bulb and the first electrical power company, garnering more than a thousand U.S. patents during his life — all with minimum formal education.
In Roth’s mind, there truly is nothing new under the sun. On the other hand, he subscribes to a continuous improvement theory that has enabled him and his associates at Beef Products Inc. (BPI) to build a business generating $600 million in annual sales with 1,300 employees.
The family-owned, private firm with corporate offices in Dakota Dunes, S.D., includes processing plants in Nebraska, Texas, Kansas and Iowa for the production of boneless lean beef trimmings and a sophisticated design-and-build machine shop.
Although Roth heads the BPI team as founder and chairman, he did not travel the road to glory alone. At his side were two other highly skilled mechanics. Tom Woolley is field engineering coordinator with 22 years of BPI service.
“Nobody in our company is afraid to explore mechanical potential rather than accept perceived limitations,” Woolley says. “For example, a motor can function in a variety of ways. So can an electric grinder.”
Meanwhile, Ron Yockey, project manager, also with more than 20 years of service, is the third member of the team that has become a synonym for BPI, which evolved from an idea that had no constraints in terms of possibilities.
“Our association is like a family with no hierarchy,” Woolley says. “We talk to each other on an informal basis when we conduct business. We come up with ideas in casual conversations, and then we just go do it. We don’t consult engineers or anybody else who will tell us all the reasons something cannot be done.”
All three men learned the old fashioned way — hands on.
“If you have been taught all your life that you need an engineer to draw something and you can’t just take a piece of metal and poke holes in it to see what will happen, you won’t necessarily use it,” Woolley says.
Woolley worked five years in the packing industry before heading to work in the oil fields in South Texas and New Mexico as a mechanic. He knows about machines.
A grinding system can change the quality of raw material to make a beef patty, he notes. Moreover, the speed of a motor can change texture to very fine, crumbly or too tough to chew.
“You could not do it 10 years ago,” Woolley says. “The new technology we picked up on to run grinder and pump speeds enables us to maintain certain pressures to change texture. We are simply using other technology that has evolved in the world by other industries that we can do different things with.”
As an alumnus of IBP, now part of Tyson Foods, Yockey gained meat-industry experience from the ground up.
“The three of us grew up in the meat industry together on a day-to-day basis dealing with raw material supplies and sales demands,” Woolley confirms. “These were drivers behind innovations of equipment and mechanical systems.”
BPI is positioned as the leading manufacturer of lean beef derived from beef trimmings in the world thanks to the development of its BPI® Boneless Lean Beef, a key ingredient in ground beef and hamburger blends produced by its grinding operation customers.
Like the chicken and the egg fable, it is unclear which came first — the idea that spawned a process to turn meat trimmings into a profitable commodity or the necessary machinery. That is a detail of little interest to Roth, who is as single-minded as an entrepreneur can be.
“One thing that allowed us to be better than the competition was the raw material,” Roth says. “And that is still an important component today, but we used machinery to move us away from a commodity into a premium product.”
The BPI formula for success includes equal parts controls, safeguards, custom-designed equipment and sophisticated production procedures.
“Eldon started with a product that was better than the competition,” Woolley confirms. “The goal was for the finished product to be a higher quality than anything else. That drove the equipment innovation. We started with off-the-shelf components of other manufacturers.”
Make no mistake, Eldon Roth may not have started his career with the advantage a formal education promises, but he is by no means modest about his company’s accomplishments.
“We are the best in the world at what we are doing,” Roth says. “We are the biggest, with the most products across the world, and the most successful by far.”
To be sure, Roth does not consider himself deprived concerning his formal education.
Listen to him:
“I did not have one day of college, nor did the three top people in the company. But I am not against it. I even had a tough time in high school. We know how to do things in this company, not because we are smarter than anybody else. We know how to do things because we do things.”
Indeed what the BPI team does is turn ordinary machines into works of art. The BPI story is about modern and efficient equipment housed in facilities built for safety concerning workers and products — all of which are clues to the firm’s processing capability and business viability.
It began with the BPI version of a roller press freezer — technology that has evolved to its current capacity of processing 20,000 pounds an hour.
“We were lucky to get 5,000 pounds an hour 10 years ago,” Roth notes. “Really the only successful roller press freezers in the world have been ours. They have been around a long time but never caught on. Not only have we changed that machine from merely a freezing device, but we made it a freezing and forming device.”
That is another definition of BPI, its ability to make changes to its equipment and systems where none seem necessary. No mystery here, for Roth knows the absence of change is stagnation.
“Nobody else obsoletes us, we do it ourselves,” he says. “Some of the things we tried years ago, we laugh about today. But that was an educational process. That’s the reason we know when something works or not. Just because something does not work does not mean the idea is not good. It probably means the method used was no good.” NP
A safety-first process
BPI’s highly developed procedure — which takes into account food safety — begins with quality fresh beef trimmings derived from the boning lines of nearby approved slaughter and fabrication plants.
The disinewed material is tempered, but remains below postmortem temperature, to facilitate the separation of fat from lean. Finished product is quick-frozen on a Roller Press Freezer, cut into chips, compressed into a solid block and packaged.
“With food-safety issues out there and pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella, plus hungry lawyers and hungry court systems, the challenges are huge,” Woolley affirms. “There is a big opportunity for a company like BPI to do things better. The quality of the live animal is what the animal is. Keeping the quality of that product intact all the way to the consumer is not being addressed the way it should be. I think BPI will make a big impact on the rest of the industry because of the standards we hold ourselves to. I think the public will demand that the rest of the industry follow suit.”
BPI’s test-and-hold program to uncover the existence of E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella involves extensive sampling and product analysis. The company stands behind the efficacy of its program and encourages its customers to participate in BPI’s buy-back guarantee program.