There’s an old saying, “What goes around, comes around.” More than just a cliché, it often turns out to be true – especially in the business world. And if there is truth to this saying, it certainly would apply to Mike Townsley, president of BEF Foods, a subsidiary of Bob Evans Farms Inc.
A long-time leader in the meat industry, Townsley proudly touts that he graduated from The Ohio State Univ.’s Department of Animal Sciences in Columbus, Ohio, 30 years ago. In a gesture to show its pride, officials with the university’s College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Science’s Department of Animal Sciences recently inducted Townsley into its Hall of Fame. Induction into the Hall celebrates the achievements of those who have enhanced student education and enriched the animal sciences and meat processing industry. Honorees have demonstrated superior skill and achieved success in the field of animal sciences. They also have practiced service to others by giving their time, energy and thoughtfulness in the local community.
Townsley earned his induction into The Ohio State Univ. Hall of Fame by means of his continued leadership in the meat industry. He does this as an innovator in the field of meat science, meat processing and marketing.
“We recognize in manufacturing food products that in order to stay competitive with others in the industry we have to work with our producers and our workers – and we have to work in a very efficient way. That’s what I and others on my team try to do to maintain some of the lowest food costs possible,” he says.
BEF Foods Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of Bob Evans Farms Inc., but, Townsley says. “We’re a company, not a division of the corporation.”
BEF Foods Inc. achieved approximately $350 million in sales this past year. Twenty, accounting for 20 percent of the Bob Evans Farms enterprise, which racked up sales of $1.7 billion this past year.
Townsley explains BEF Foods Inc. is 10 percent foodservice and 90 percent retail/branded, and does business with all the major retailers throughout the country. Of the 10 percent BEF Foods does in foodservice, 3 percent of that supplies Bob Evans Farms restaurants. There are 569 restaurants under the Bob Evans brand name in 18 states, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Southeast US. “The Mimi’s Café consists of 145 casual restaurants in 24 states, and for the most part in California and other western states,” he says. The Bob Evans family restaurants are a $1 billion business, while Mimi’s Cafes are a $375 million to $400 million business.
But the No. 1 product BEF Foods supplies to Bob Evans and Mimi’s Café Restaurants is sausage, and 100 percent of the sausage for the restaurants comes from BEF Foods. Townsley says the company operates three fresh-processing plants, including one in Ohio, another in Michigan and a third in Texas. In addition to fresh sausage, the company also manufactures pre-cooked sausage, soups, gravies and home-style convenience food items.
An illustrious career
Townsley joined Bob Evans Farms as president and chief operating officer of Owens Foods, then Owens Country Sausage, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bob Evans Farms, in 2003. Before joining Bob Evans, Townsley was senior vice president for Premium Standard Farms in Kansas City, beginning in 1997. Before that, he spent three years at Smithfield Packing Company in Smithfield, Va., and 11 years with IBP in Dakota City, Neb.
It’s no surprise Townsley got to where he is today. “I grew up in agriculture, on a small farm in southwest Ohio. In fact, from many generations of farmers, so there was no doubt what I’d be doing with my life,” he says with a laugh. “I was always interested in the meat industry, and I knew I’d be in this industry.”
But Townsley is one of those leaders who has taken major steps to make continuing innovations in the meat processing industry. Townsley says a major focus in the meat processing industry over the past 20 years has been food safety.
“Food safety is an area that’s always been non-competitive, as far as the industry is concerned,” says Townsley, who’s a member of the American Meat Institute’s board of directors’ executive committee. “I work with other industry colleagues to make big strides forward to improve food safety – that’s the top priority for the food industry in the US,” he says.
He does this by sontinuing to serve on several AMI committees, including its pork committee, and by his previous service on the board of the National Pork Producers Council, the Colorado Beef Board and the Packer Processor Industry Council for the NPPC.
But there’s no question his background in the industry helped move him toward his leadership position at BEF. “In my 11 years at IBP in Dakota City, I focused on learning about the leadership and quality in work I found embedded there,” he says. “I also worked for Bo Manly at Smithfield Packing Company, and then at Premium Standard Farms. Those positions, working with those people, helped me develop skills enabling me to work with other people in transforming our company.
“Steve Davis [chairman of the board and CEO of Bob Evans Farms Inc.] helped me to envision how best to broaden BEF Foods,” he adds. “We have national distribution across the US, with limited distribution in Canada and Mexico, but mostly in the US. Our team has been successful in increasing our sales growth and improving our margins, but not at the expense of the company.”
In explaining the first quarter of 2012 per share earnings of 59 cents, up 44 percent from a year ago, Townsley says the company’s effort to increase shareholder dividends began a few years ago. “We became a lean operation and we took pricing action a year ago when material costs exploded. We began focusing on promotional spending efficiencies,” he says. “There was also plant consolidation, which helped push down our costs.”
Big company executives often have to decide whether they prefer working with the “business” side or the “people” side of a company. For Townsley, people are the most important component of an enterprise.
“You have to get them to follow you,” he says. “But I also enjoy the business side because that’s my role here. I’m responsible for all aspects of the BEF Foods business, while the people working for me are involved in the responsibility for each area. When I was with previous companies [before coming to Bob Evans], I worked in sales. Coming to Bob Evans, provided me the opportunity to move in to general management. So now I’m responsible for sales, marketing and operations. It’s really a nice fit for me.”
“My business philosophy could be summed up this way,” he says. “Recently, I attended a presentation by Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s. Skinner said, ‘My goal is to surround myself with people smarter than I am. If I don’t, then I’m getting bad advice.’
“At Bob Evans, I let people do their jobs and I try not to interfere with them,” he adds. “If you have the right people in the right positions and let them accomplish what they’re supposed to do, then the company will be successful.”
And like most good executives, Townsley is very positive. “I’m a glass half-full guy,” he says. “It’s not that I can’t face the reality of situations. But if I’m going to set a vision for the company, I have to think positively about a lot of things, including the continued growth and profitability of our company.”
He believes one of his main strengths is an ability to understand and read people. “I feel like I have a good sense of who I’m communicating with, and the best way to do it,” he says.
Townsley has made good use of this ability to communicate in guiding his company through the challenges of dealing with the three-year recession. “We’re in a battle for our share of stomach,” he says. “It’s very competitive right now, especially with the economic downturn. We’re continuing at BEF Foods to provide high-quality products at a fair value to our consumers as our approach to fighting this downturn.”
Townsley also voices concern about the continuing controversy over illegal immigration in the US, especially as it affects the meat industry. “At Bob Evans, we do all the proper checks,” he says. “We’re in lockstep with AMI and their position on the issue of immigration reform.”
Keep growing the business
“So, for Mike Townsley, the most important priority comes back to continuing to grow business during a period of economic uncertainty,” he adds. “The shrinking economy, ironically, has resulted in a great area of consumer need. It has allowed for expansion of our branded, refrigerated side dishes, like mashed potatoes, that can be prepared and ready to eat in five minutes.
“We’ve taken a product people produce for themselves on weekends because it takes little time to do well,” he continues. “We’ve made a product that people can quickly prepare during the week.”
Townsley believes the future of the company is tied to similar kinds of food-industry developments – greater growth for BEF Foods Inc.