Despite its size and diversity, Tyson Foods has remained committed to the 90-year family tradition established by its Wright Brand subsidiary, still based in Vernon, Texas. When Tyson Foods acquired IBP inc. in 2001, the deal included Corporate Brand Foods America (CBFA), a collection of what were once family owned meat companies with names like Iowa Ham Canning, JacPac Foods, International Trading Co. and Wright Brand Foods. The Wright family sold its company to CBFA in 1999, about 77 years after it was founded. Egbert Eggleston, his son, Fay, and Roy Wright, Egbert’s son-in-law, could never have fathomed that what they founded in 1922 as Vernon Meat Co., in the back of a Vernon, Texas-based grocery store, would grow to be one of the most coveted subsidiaries of one of the largest meat and poultry processing companies in the world.
Still operating from the plant built in the 1940s, the company, which changed hands to the family of its current namesake during World War II, no longer slaughters hogs there, nor is its bacon or ham made from pork delivered by railroad cars as it was in the early years. A technology-rich supply-and-distribution chain has streamlined hog production and pork processing, but the tradition of Texas-style smoked flavor of thick-cut, Wright Brand bacon has survived the test of time. With the backing of Tyson, the company’s bacon business has built an even “bigger, better” brand by promoting its tradition-based quality with contemporary marketing processing technology. Still coveted is the Wright Brand’s famous cure formulation and hickory smoking process.
Family tree roots
The company’s history is steeped in family tradition, from its founding to after Roy Wright bought out his father-in-law. It continued years later, when Roy’s sons, Bill and Bob, joined the business with their dad. Then known as Wright Packing Co., the operation had grown to 225 employees with an established base of customers. Roy officially passed the torch to his sons when he retired in 1978. By that time, Bill’s son, Dan, was also working at the plant, where growth in ham and bacon processing was increasingly hindered by the slaughtering operation also conducted at the plant. The threesome soon decided to focus only on processing and left slaughtering to other companies. The new focus facilitated the development of Wright Brand’s peppered bacon and hickory-smoked ham.
Wright Packing next evolved into Wright Brand Foods Inc. and from 1982 to 2001 numerous renovations were made to increase processing capacity. What began with a new derind room led to the eventual overhauling of the entire plant, which doubled production.
During this transition, Bob and Bill both retired in 1994 and fourth-generation descendants, Dan and Kelly Wright and Kirk Eggleston, took the company reigns and were at the helm when it was acquired by IBP. More than 650 workers were employed at the plant by the end of 1998 and today, about 800 workers are employed there. Kirk Eggleston is the last member of the founding family still working at the plant, previously as a QA manager and more recently as an industrial engineer.
About 200 of the current staff at the Vernon facility have been around long enough to remember the days before Tyson. Many others have transferred to Springdale to work at Tyson headquarters.
Brian Chrisman, complex manager of Wright Brand Bacon, says the company’s growth has been impossible to ignore at the plant level. One tipping point occurred in the late 1990s when a second shift was added. As demand continued to surge, a number of expansions followed in order to meet the growing needs. These projects involved expanding the smokehouse area of the facility and increasing the freezing and chilling space.
“Another change that was made to handle the growth was moving our ham operation out of the Vernon facility,” Chrisman says.
Since that change, which occurred in 2001, the facility has been 100-percent dedicated to Wright Brand bacon production, while the majority of the Wright Brand ham processing is handled by a Tyson plant in Concordia, Mo. The move created additional space for bacon-slicing lines and allowed for the installation of ovens designed for bacon as opposed to ham processing. “It definitely broadened our capacity and available floor space and expanded what we could do with our current footprint,” which spans approximately 275,000 sq. ft., Chrisman says.
Approximately 800 employees work at the plant today, where bacon-specific processing churns out products across more than a dozen lines. The plant is an active corporate citizen in the Vernon community and a regular contributor to civic events and local charities. On behalf of Wright Brand facility, which is the second-largest employer in Vernon, Tyson Foods recently donated $100,000 toward the construction of an aquatic center being built locally. Over the years, Tyson and employees at the Vernon plant have contributed time and money to many charities and special community events in the town.
At one time, microwaveable bacon was manufactured at the Vernon plant, but it was moved to the company’s Omaha-based facility to make room for even more stack-pack bacon lines.
Production of the company’s stack-pack bacon has similar processing challenges to traditional, tux-or shingle-style bacon, but most slicers can accommodate all of these styles, with some minor mechanical tweaks. The Vernon plant utilizes multiple brands of slicers and utilizes stack-pack bacon for Wright Brand products and some private label customers, as well as bulk-style bacon for foodservice customers. Operationally, Chrisman says the volatility of the hog market, which has seen weights and prices reach record highs in 2011, is evident at the Vernon plant. “It does create issues in our facilities as it would with everybody else,” he adds.
As a dedicated bacon plant, consistency in flavor and quality is an operational goal at the Wright facility. Investments at the plant over the years have made this goal a reality, Chrisman says. “Renovations have allowed the plant to have the footprint needed to grow our daily and weekly volume and keep our process consistent,” he adds. “If you’re thinking about the Wright Brand flavor and profile, the key point of the process is the curing and smoke process.”
Hickory chips and sawdust continue being used to impart the Wright Brand signature flavor, albeit on a much larger scale. “Probably one of our biggest challenges has been ensuring that we don’t change our process,” Chrisman says. Among the most coveted of those processes include the Wright Brand cure and the Wright Brand smoking process, which have not changed despite ownership transitions and growth that the Wright family could have never fathomed. Helping preserve that tradition are more than 200 current employees at the Vernon plant who were working there during the Wright Brand days. “And they’re very protective of the Wright Brand image and making sure we maintain the Wright Brand quality,” Chrisman says.
In-plant automation has always been helpful in the processing industry and in bacon production it is no less valued. “It improves the work environment for our team members by doing repetitious and otherwise physically challenging tasks. Automation is definitely helpful by aiding in efficiency and overall net volume,” he says, but it hasn’t come at the expense of jobs.
In fact, the higher volume of production has required the same number of employees over the years, especially to perform the non-repetitious tasks. The human element is crucial in grading and evaluating product and while imaging technology can facilitate this to a degree, “you still need to have the human intervention on the production line,” says Chrisman, who has worked in bacon production for the past five of his 15 years with Tyson.
Changing and preserving
In the post-Tyson era, plenty has changed at Wright while a lot of what goes on behind the scenes has been preserved. None of this was by accident. Wright Brand’s sales and marketing efforts were bolstered after the 2001 acquisition, thanks to the financial firepower of Tyson. This was a big change that continues today with campaigns that include memorable radio ads, social media, sponsorships of sporting events and more. As a family owned company, Wright Brand’s strategy had always focused more on ensuring quality and consistent product at a fair price. Participating in retailers’ in-store ads has always been a priority, but the cost associated with those ads has increased significantly and the company’s growth relied largely on word of mouth. Word-of-mouth chatter about the products spread like wildfire throughout Texas, but it could only provide a certain amount of growth.
After Wright began expanding outside its core markets, it was clear that merely offering a great-tasting product would not be enough. In order to support brand growth especially beyond the borders of Texas, a program was developed to drive trial and awareness. “It is important to communicate what the brand stands for, which takes research and additional creative expenses,” says Tyson’s Kristina Lambert, senior director of marketing for bacon.
She says Wright Brand bacon enjoys a fanatical consumer following that fuels many of the more recent promotional campaigns. According to Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group, annual retail sales of Wright Brand bacon are nearly $105 million, not including sales at Walmart or club stores.
“The taste drives an incredible loyalty with the customers at retail and at foodservice,” says Lambert. Recent market research identified what customers valued most about Wright’s bacon, and the findings are behind one of its newest taglines: “Bigger, better bacon.” The catchphrase is splashed all over its fun-loving website and is spouted by its silky-voiced pitchman in recently released radio commercials.
Wright Brand’s Hickory Smoked bacon is the mainstay offering among the five varieties available. The other varieties include applewood, peppered, maple and its new steakhouse retail offering, which began shipment to retailers last month. Traditional retailers offer Wright Brand bacon in 24-oz. packages for all varieties while its Hickory Smoked products are also available in 40- and 48-oz. sizes. The package size for its club store customers is 3.5-lb., which also includes slightly thicker-cut slices. All of the retail products feature resealable packaging.