In 2009, JBS made the decision to invest in the U.S. chicken market, and pull Pilgrim’s Pride from bankruptcy, gaining a controlling interest in the chicken processor and beginning a monstrous turnaround project that continues today. Adding Pilgrim’s Pride to the JBS S.A. global family (Pilgrim’s is not connected directly with JBS USA) rounded out the Brazilian-based processor’s protein offerings, but also gave it yet another integration project to add to the list over the last several years.
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However, just as it did with prior acquisitions, JBS saw untapped potential in the people and expertise behind the production and brands, and immediately began investing and supporting those employees as they went about doing their jobs better. Eric Erickson, complex manager of the Live Oak, Fla., case-ready plant, commends JBS for its vision and commitment thus far.
“JBS saw an opportunity to come in and be a part of this facility and wasn’t afraid of the opportunities that were there, with the investment that was already made in this facility,” he says. “But the biggest part is [JBS took] ownership and responsibility for a facility that had significant investments laid into it — that’s the bigger statement.”
At the Live Oak facility, employees had been riding the roller coaster of uncertainty, but JBS’ approach to the acquisition went over well from the start.
“As JBS came on, [corporate operations] moved to Greeley,” explains Mike Massey, debone plant manager at Live Oak. “You could see a lot of support at that point. It was not, ‘Hey, I want you to change this; do this and do this.’ It was, ‘Hey, you’re all about chicken. You know chicken. So you do chicken, and we want you to be successful doing it.’”
Ali Perry, sales manager for Live Oak, saw the commitment from JBS from the start as well, and it has already produced great results for the plant.
“JBS comes in and … you know you’ve got the support,” she explains. “They basically said, ‘Live Oak, Florida, you’re going to make it, and this is what we’re going to do to help you.’ With that support, we went from having one major customer to [now having] four major customers in this plant, and we’re at production capacity.”
Admittedly, the market conditions  have created a situation in which it hasn’t been all financial roses and great news — but Pilgrim’s Pride recently posted its best quarter historically, and Cameron Bruett, head of sustainability and corporate communications, JBS, says that wasn’t the company riding market fundamentals, but instead was based on the changes made in leadership and strategy for Pilgrim’s Pride.
JBS has invested money and time into improving Live Oak’s vertically integrated system in a variety of ways. Most recently, Live Oak’s live operations have embarked on a project to build new housing on its farms for the first time in eight years.
Live Oak features a solar-panel water-heating array on the roof that takes 70-degree tap water and heats it to 120 degrees using the heat from the sunlight itself.
“When it was finished, it was the largest solar panel array of its type in the continental U.S.,” explains Erickson. “It’s equivalent from a carbon footprint basis to about 100 cars on an annual basis.”
As it has done in its other divisions, JBS also has invested time and effort into improving conditions and the situation for its workforce. In Live Oak, the payback reflects that of the Marshalltown, Iowa, JBS USA pork facility — Live Oak had reached 2.2 million consecutive man hours worked without a lost-time incident (at the time of The National Provisioner’s visit to the plant). A variety of safety programs have been in place, but Erickson says that prior to JBS’ involvement, this level of recognition was never achieved.
Ergonomic improvements, including adjustable-height workstations, have been incorporated, and safety programs and committees have been developed to keep all employees keen on worker-safety goals and progress, adds Tom Teston, safety manager, Live Oak.
“We have an active safety committee that we meet with once a month, so we get input from the hourly employees, and they give us good ideas,” he says. Even more impressive, Live Oak’s feed mill operation has gone 11 years without any lost-time incident. Meanwhile, Erickson says the data bear out that Live Oak is on the right track, operationally speaking.
“From a cost standpoint, Live Oak’s running better cost here today than they ever have,” he explains. “Now we still have opportunities that we’re going to continue to push to achieve. Some of it is low-hanging fruit; some of it fruit that’s a little higher on the tree.”
Erickson adds that with the support and stability JBS brings to the table, Live Oak should be able to “get a little taller ladder to reach up and grab” that fruit, by investing in the facility’s employees.
“It’s not about having someone dictating downstream what you’re going to do, but giving you that opportunity to take control of your own destiny, pushing those tools and those resources down to us, [so we can use] them to be successful,” Erickson says.