Getting to know you
January 23, 2009
by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
Last year’s political campaigns are fading into hazy memory, the stump speeches given over and over by national and local candidates now gathering dust on the shelves or being tossed into the round file. But for Chandler Keys, director of government and industry relations for JBS-Swift, his campaign is just beginning, his stump speech still fresh and new.
He gave it earlier this month in Denver, at the Red Meat Club dinner at the National Western Stock Show, followed by another presentation to a group of cow-calf producers in eastern Oregon. "After I’m done talking, these producers always come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know JBS was a family-held company’ and ‘I didn’t know the Batistas came from rural Brazil’ and ‘I didn’t know they started with nothing,’" Keys told MEATPOULTRY.com. "It’s amazing how many people in the industry really don’t know the story of the Batistas."
Given that Wesley Batista not only runs the largest beef company in North America but is also one of the youngest CEOs of any major American firm (he’s not yet 40 years old), it is amazing. Keys said that right now one of his most important jobs is simply introducing the Batistas to the industry. "It’s Wesley’s and the family’s vision to reach out," he commented, adding that the young chief executive will attend the annual convention of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Phoenix later this month "with no set agenda other than to walk around and talk to people, getting to know them and letting them know him."
He says producers are especially curious about the Batista family – many of them find they can relate to the family’s history, said Keys. José Batista Senior got his start in the business in the late 1940s, buying cows and selling them to packers in Ańapolis, a small city in the Brazilian state of Goiás. Doubts that the packers were paying him fairly caused José to open his own butcher shop in 1953, slaughtering one cow a day. From this humble beginning rose the sprawling JBS empire, which now extends to four continents and is one of the largest corporations in the global food industry. In a stunning move, the Batistas bought Swift & Co., based in Greeley, Colo., in May 2007, the first time a major U.S. packer had come under foreign ownership.
The same dedication to hard work that drove José – who, at 74, is still very active in the company in Brazil (the JBS name comes from José Batista Senior’s initials) -- continues to drive Wesley, who did not graduate from college but nevertheless was running his own packing plant at age 17, according to Keys. "When he came to the U.S. in 2007 after his father bought Swift, Wesley didn’t speak any English at all but already he’s conversant. These aren’t insular people. What I like about them is they don’t get riled up, but I’ll tell you, Wesley can push through B.S. pretty quickly," Keyes told MEATPOULTRY.com. "What I try to tell my audiences is that these are meat people, and meat people are meat people no matter where they’re from. The Batistas are motivated by making money – cattlemen understand that. And I’ve seen Wesley walk the plant floor, grab a knife and show someone how to make a better cut. He knows this business from the bottom up, and I think the U.S. industry is going to appreciate that as they get to know him."
He said the Batista management style doesn’t involve committees or "some big task force to address a problem. It’s a breath of fresh air, really. Their idea of good business is not about confrontation, it’s about how to best go forward." When it’s pointed out that this sounds a lot like the management style of the newly installed President of the United States, Keyes smiled. Wesley and his younger brother Joesley both attended President Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. "They really wanted to be there."
Back in Greeley, Keys said that not only is the company unburdened by several layers of management, but because the Batistas came out of the cattle business they’re not motivated by the meat industry’s old, contentious division separating packers from producers. "They don’t know about those old divisions and they don’t want to know," Keys commented.
In a way, then, the Batistas have brought the Greeley operation, at least, full circle. The plant was built by the Monfort family, which also came out of the cattle business to become a major presence in beef packing. "In fact, we’ve still got some people working here who worked for the Monforts," Keys said, "and some of them have told me, ‘Wesley reminds me of Kenny.’"