Johnsonville Chases Greatness...One Sausage at a Time
Johnsonville Sausage aspires to be the best company in the world, and all members of the team, from the top down, share an unending commitment to accomplish that task.
February 1, 2007
One cannot spend a day at Johnsonville Sausage, LLC, among its employees, and not learn the ins and outs of The Johnsonville Way. It is practically impossible.
That is because The Johnsonville Way — in many ways not only the mission statement, but also a way of life for the company’s 1,300-plus employees, or members — is engrained into the hearts and minds of all who work for Johnsonville.
“The sausages are the stars here at Johnsonville, and the people who make them and are committed to making the best in the world are the stars,” explains Ralph C. Stayer, CEO and owner of the company. “That’s what we’re focused on. It’s not about us; it’s about making the best sausages in the world.”
It seems a simple summary of the overarching theme of the company — make the best sausages in the world. The Johnsonville Way, however, focuses on more than just making the best sausages. It speaks to personal growth, as well as creating the best company in the world. It’s a long journey, no doubt, but Johnsonville seems pointed in the right direction as long as it continues to follow its mantra. The word “passion” doesn’t begin to describe the feelings that Johnsonville’s members evoke when asked about the goals of the company.
“The thing I love about Johnsonville is what we’re creating,” says Tom Wolff, director of marketing. “At the other places I worked — General Mills and Coca-Cola — we had already created a world-class brand. But here, we’re in the process of doing that, and that’s what gets me fired up. That’s what’s so exciting about being here right now, because we really are creating a world-class brand.”
“We are very focused,” adds Bill Morgan, chief operating officer. “Even if we have a No. 1 market share or dollar share nationally, that’s still not necessarily good enough, and it doesn’t mean you stop trying to make that product even better every single day. It’s never, ‘Hey, we’re No. 1, it’s good.’ It’s always, ‘Is there a way to make it better?’”
Because it demands so much of the members who follow it, Stayer says, The Johnsonville Way is not for everyone.
“This is for people who really want to continuously set stretching goals, continuously change the goals that you had,” he says. “When you see that you’re coming close to them [and ask], ‘Can I just rest for a minute?’ No, because you only get one life.”
In 1978, Stayer became president of the company that his parents, Ralph and Alice Stayer, had founded in the small town of Johnsonville, Wis., in 1945. Ralph the son rapidly expanded the sale of Johnsonville sausages beyond the state of Wisconsin, and today Johnsonville is sold across the country and in 39 countries, including Canada, Mexico, France, Japan and China. In fact, Johnsonville produces enough sausage to provide nearly a pound of sausage to every man, woman and child in the United States.
Furthermore, Johnsonville opened this year its new Global Headquarters in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. — not far from the original home of Johnsonville Sausage in its namesake town.
But, possibly Stayer’s most noteworthy accomplishment since taking the reins of Johnsonville has been his approach to empowering employees and allowing them to grow using the resources of the business.
Johnsonville members are not only allowed to offer their suggestions for improving any aspect of the business, but they are expected to do so and have the full support of the company to investigate those suggestions. Even if those suggestions involve improving members’ personal development, as opposed to processes directly related to the business side of things.
“My first job is to provide the context within which you [as a member] can decide what’s right for you,” Stayer says. “And once you make that decision that this is right, then my job is to provide the environment and resources to help you do it. And that, I believe, is morality. It’s not happenstance that it is in [The Johnsonville Way]. We believe in that to the fullest extent, and it’s really critical.”
Johnsonville has certainly provided plenty of avenues for member development, from the multitude of work-related and personal growth programs to the new fitness and aerobics centers in the headquarters, which is open to all members 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All of these programs were suggested, researched, developed and executed by Johnsonville members, not by executive management.
But member development goes beyond health and wellness and business improvement. In order to continually develop excellent, innovative strategies, members are expected to expand their horizons and learn on their own — and, of course, Johnsonville supports it with an entire team devoted to learning.
“We just see it as learning to be great,” Stayer says. “You don’t start out great, you learn to be great.”
The Organizational Development & Learning (OD&L) team, led by director Don McAdams, helps members achieve their full potential — and its vision, to become the best in the world at developing the best in the world, follows The Johnsonville Way to the core. Through programs such as Johnsonville U, which teaches hard and soft skills and culture education, to enterprise-wide systems training and documentation efforts, to team development, leadership development and coaching, the OD&L team is the muscle behind Johnsonville’s commitment to learning.
Within the OD&L team’s sphere, members can participate in scholarship and member development funding programs to encourage advanced education, or get an interest-free loan of up to $1,500 toward the purchase of a personal computer or computer-related component to encourage computer skills. Also, the OD&L team fosters learning through the Member Development Center, an on-site learning resource center with Internet access and a library of books, magazines and videos that members and their families can access anytime. The center is staffed by a learning development specialist.
Spreading the word
Simply put, Johnsonville has grown by getting out and getting people to enjoy their great-tasting product. Whether via Johnsonville TV icon Charlie Murphy (“cooking Johnsonville Brats!”) or one of three Big Taste Grill trucks — tractor trailers hauling massive grills capable of cooking 2,500 brats an hour — Wolff says getting people to experience the product has been the key to creating a buzz.
“What we look for is, how do we give consumers a great experience?” he says.
“Sometimes it’s at the Super Bowl, sometimes it might be at a festival, sometimes it might be in a parking lot at a retailer. But it’s always where we think we can give people a great experience.”
Creating that top-notch experience has paid off for both the company and a wide variety of charities. The small-town, Midwestern values that the company also exports, spurs Johnsonville to book the Big Taste Grill for charity fundraisers whenever possible. In fact, Wolff says, in the 11 years that the company has had at least one Big Taste Grill, the company has been able to raise and donate more than $2.5 million for local charities through the trucks.
“The idea of a Brat Fry for Sheboygan was a fundraiser, and this is how people did fundraisers for 100 years in Sheboygan,” Wolff explains. “That’s what gave people the idea for this Big Taste Grill — what if we create this Brat Fry experience all over the country? That way, people get experience with our product and we’re helping give back with the fundraisers.”
Herein lays the strategy Johnsonville has followed and will continue to follow when launching new products. Recently, Johnsonville saw great response to reworking its Italian Sausage line, Stayer says. He is proud of the members who took a look at that product, which was seeing decent growth, and decided to make it better.
“Our Italian Sausage has always been extremely good, and there’s always been a big gap between it and the rest of the world,” he adds. “But they looked at it and said we could do better.”
Johnsonville is prepared, in fact, to roll out a new smoked turkey sausage, which happens to be lower in fat and generally healthier than Johnsonville’s typical sausage products. But even though the company follows consumer perceptions and demands extremely closely, making a turkey product — let alone a “healthier” product — was not something the company felt it had to do at all costs. It had to be perfect, as does any product initiative the company undertakes, Stayer explains.
“If [the turkey products] weren’t absolutely awesome-tasting sausages, they wouldn’t get made at Johnsonville,” he says. “I’m way more excited about how good those things are than I am about what the calories are or what the nutrition level is. What turns me on is, I can’t wait to eat those. I couldn’t stop eating them when we were testing them. … That’s what turns me on, and that’s what our focus is.”
Wolff carries the idea further, evidence to the fact that the credo of making the best sausages in the world is not lip service at this company — it’s a fact of life.
“It’s going to get back to, and it always does, the fact that we’re going to make sausage that tastes absolutely fabulous, and we’re not going to sacrifice anything to do that,” he explains. “If we can find ways to appeal to pockets of consumers that are looking for healthier items, then we’re going to look for those ways.
“But if you get back to who we are and what we do, first and foremost, we’re going to make sure we’re delivering a great product that tastes fabulous. That’s why people buy sausage.”
One of the between-the-lines helping hands in spreading the word about Johnsonville products has been the company’s foray into foodservice venues, starting first and foremost with the partnership with McDonald’s Corp. In 1998, McDonald’s began carrying Johnsonville Brats seasonally on the menus of some of its restaurants in Wisconsin, and the partnership has grown to more than 4,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the country today. Most importantly, however, is that the Johnsonville brand name remains on the menu — creating an enormous amount of awareness for Johnsonville.
According to Launa Stayer, vice chair of Johnsonville Sausage, the partnership developed from a chance encounter at an LPGA golf event in Kohler with a McDonald’s executive whose daughter had written a paper at Marquette University in Milwaukee about how McDonald’s should serve Johnsonville Brats. The idea intrigued both parties, and the rest is history, as they say.
“Really, the stars, planets and moon aligned just right for the encounter to happen,” Stayer explains.
As a result, the doors to foodservice have been blown open, and Johnsonville has embraced with open arms the challenge of supplying the foodservice sector.
“I think the success of it told us that the foodservice industry is looking for premium brands and is trying, we believe, to upscale from commodity or [concealing brand names],” Morgan adds. “They’re looking for some brands to enhance their image and possibly raise their margins because they can get a better price for the product.”
Wolff concurs, saying that foodservice operators looking for a strong brand that can increase check average and improve quality are a good fit for Johnsonville products.
“Foodservice operators are looking for great brands that can help either increase average check or change product mix,” Wolff adds. “And that’s what we did for McDonald’s.”
Manufacturing the best sausages
Sausage production at Johnsonville’s Global Headquarters in Wisconsin spans three plants: Meadowside, Countryside and Riverside. Each is within a half mile of each other as the crow flies, with the Meadowside and Countryside facilities neighboring the headquarters.
The Meadowside facility was built in 2004 and is used primarily for Johnsonville’s cooked/smoked product lines. In 2005, Meadowside’s cooked-link sausage product was ranked No. 1 in the U.S.
Johnsonville’s Countryside plant was built in 1977, offers 180,000 square feet of production space and specializes in pumping out the company’s fresh sausage products.
Pre-rigor meat arrives from three of Johnsonville’s facilities prior to production. The plant goes through hundreds of bins of meat per day to produce the sausage during the winter months, but thousands during the summer months.
Bins of meat are taken to the plant’s overhead grinding system, which delivers the meat to one of six stuffing lines. The entire grinding and delivery system is automated, which Mike Zorn, assistant facility coordinator for the Countryside facility, says made pushing carts of ground beef from grinder to stuffer an obsolete practice.
Plant members were integral to incorporating the system, as they were the ones who suggested its installation. It is the first example of the many process innovations that members at Johnsonville are expected to discover and suggest as they go about their daily business, even on the plant floor.
Countryside’s grinding system automatically senses when each stuffer is ready for a batch of ground meat and redirects conveyors to deliver the meat to the appropriate line. After sausages are stuffed, they slide down a chute directly onto the package trays, where team members conduct a quick quality check and reposition the sausages in the trays for optimal packing, if necessary. The packs of sausage then travel on a conveyor to be wrapped.
Johnsonville uses a stretchwrapper on its fresh sausage products, another change that was brought about by team members. The company formerly used shrinkwrap on its fresh sausage, but the sales and marketing team found through research that stretchwrap would get better results in the marketplace. Backed with their research, the members suggested the change, and according to Zorn, the plant switched its packaging machines to stretchwrap very quickly.
Another change in packaging, Zorn relays, came in the case-packing area of the plant. Countryside members used to manually pack fresh sausage products into cases, but the plant was looking for a way to prevent the repetitive-motion issues that would arise from such a task. Several members attended the American Meat Institute’s show that year, where they saw a particular pneumatic case-packer in action. Upon those members’ return to Johnsonville, the company heeded their suggestion and purchased the pneumatic case-packers to make the process easier for its members.
Prior to being packed in cases for shipping, product passes through X-ray detectors, which were implemented two years ago at the Countryside facility. Once again, this upgrade from the company’s original metal-detection equipment was the result of member initiatives. Barb Hau, a member of the Countryside facility’s quality department, put together a presentation for the leadership team on the benefits of installing X-ray machines.
“During the middle of the presentation, I believe we were going through the information on the findings of the X-ray machine as compared to our metal detectors,” Hau explains. “When we showed the chart of the foreign object consumer complaints before and after the installation of the X-ray — which showed zero for the last five months — Ralph [Stayer] exclaimed that he had seen and heard enough. We should move forward with this initiative as soon as possible, even if it meant holding off on some other spending.”
Such positive reinforcement of ideas that work is part of the reason that Johnsonville members have little to fear when it comes to suggesting ways to improve the facilities, processes, strategies — or anything else, including the overall quality of life for Johnsonville’s members. Ralph Stayer himself can hardly mask his sky-high level of support for this continuous-improvement notion that the company fosters.
“We always talk about building people,” he says. “My opinion has always been, the way most business is structured, it’s to use people to build a business. Our focus has always been using the business to build people.”
Members throughout the company are expected to offer suggestions for improvement at any time they see the chance to hatch a new idea or better strategy.
Such was the case in the Countryside facility’s rework area. Originally, rework product was stripped of its casing by hand, but members in that area felt that they were simply not adding value to the process and determined that it would be best for the company to install machinery to pull the casings off rework product. Johnsonville adopted that initiative as well, installing machines and giving those team members a chance to add value elsewhere in the plant.
Zorn explained that these suggestions are an ongoing event, revealing that a recent suggestion to package a particular product in a more user-friendly box was being studied and weighed at the time of The National Provisioner’s visit in late January.
Another integral part of the ownership that members take in producing Johnsonville sausage occurs in the Countryside plant’s Sensory Area, where weekly performance and consistency product reviews are performed by members. Volunteers (generally, there is a waiting list, says Kevin Ladwig, director of science and procurement) are trained to be the “top tongues” of the company, sampling product and ranking it based on three attributes — spice, salt and meat flavor. The volunteers come from all areas of the plant and typically spend six months on the sensory team, which meets for 60 to 90 minutes once a week to perform the sampling.
During The National Provisioner’s visit, the sensory team was testing breakfast patties — each member taste-tested a patty from the same lot, offered their rank in each of the three attributes mentioned above, and a consensus “average” of the scores was recorded. That information is then shared with team members on the plant floor, where adjustments can be made, if necessary.
Johnsonville’s Riverside facility lies about a half mile from the global headquarters campus and primarily focuses on the production of summer sausage, a product that Johnsonville is quite proud of, say Ladwig and Shane Bennin, assistant facility coordinator at Riverside, since the sausage consistently scores well above competitors in consumer panels.
Here, the old-world methods of sausage-making remain intact, giving Johnsonville a highly authentic product. Johnsonville was producing a 12-ounce summer sausage product when The National Provisioner visited. Racks of sausage hung in the greening room, where the pH of the product is dropped and the temperature raised in order to activate the cultures in the product.
After approximately eight hours in the greening room, product is wheeled to the crown jewel of the process — one of the plant’s authentic, old-fashioned pit ovens. These nine ovens are original to the plant, which was purchased by the Stayers in 1945.
Sausage is slowly smoked for hours the old-fashioned way — over a smoldering blend of hardwood that sits under a grate in the floor. The brick walls and steel doors are coated with the black, charcoal residue left from decades of smoking, and the entire room is filled with the pleasant, smoked sausage aroma.
The Riverside plant produces hundreds of racks of summer sausage per week, with production at a high point in early fall, to prepare for the holiday rush on the product.
Full speed ahead
It has been an excellent year for Johnsonville, and an even better five-year span, with the company doubling in size, explains Morgan. But ask anyone at the company, and it’s not as much about the business growth as it is about the personal growth of each member. Stayer insists that the success of the company is measured for him by the continued journey on the road to being the best company in the world, with the best people making the best sausages.
“The exciting thing is, what we learned this last year is allowing us to live [The Johnsonville Way] in a much more profound and powerful way than we have in the past,” Stayer explains. “[And] I think we’re going to sit here a year from now and say, ‘We have had one heckuva year. We’ve gone a long distance on our journey toward becoming the best company in the world, and, oh my gosh, we still have so far to go.’ I think that’s exactly what we’ll be sitting here saying.”
And that, in a nutshell, is The Johnsonville Way — thus far, the foundation for big taste and big success.