His aw-shucks manner was disarming – and charming. He could make a long and vastly entertaining speech out of nothing but jokes and cowboy stories. His taste in fashion was, well, "uncoordinated" might be the most accurate descriptor. But the public presentation of Ken Monfort was a mask, almost a ruse. Behind the jokes and beneath the rumpled, often-mismatched clothes was one of the savviest, sharpest and most entrepreneurial men in the history of the U.S. meat industry. Shambling and disheveled as he could be, "Kenny," as he was known to virtually everyone, changed the industry in fundamental ways that continue to shape the business.
A new biography, "Kenny’s Shoes: A Walk Through the Storied Life of the Remarkable Kenneth W. Monfort," by Walt Barnhart is the first book to capture Monfort and his family’s story between covers. "He was a brilliant man, not a bumbler at all, as some people might’ve thought from his appearance," Barnhart told MEATPOULTRY.com. The book’s title is taken from a story about Kenny showing up at a high-profile political fundraiser with a different cowboy boot on each foot. He said he had a pair just like ‘em back home.
Barnhart worked for Monfort of Colorado back in the 1970s, in the company’s feedyards as well as in the plant and corporate office. "I always thought, this is one interesting guy, really fascinating. Someone should do a book about him," he said. After he had gone on to a career in public relations he suggested a book a couple of times to Kenny’s son Dick, but it wasn’t until the University of Northern Colorado, where the business school is named for the Monfort family, that interest got serious.
Barnhart interviewed nearly 100 former employees and Monfort family members, including Dick and his brother Charlie, who are now in the baseball rather than cattle business – together they own a majority share of the Colorado Rockies major-league team. Some former Monfort staffers went on to significant careers in other fields: Sam Addoms became chairman and CEO of Frontier Airlines; Alan "Bud" Middaugh became the first president of the U.S. Meat Export Federation; Ike Kelly was elected Lieutenant Governor of Colorado; and Hank Brown served as U.S. Senator from Colorado and then president of the University of Colorado. But the writer also drew from the extensive writings Kenny left behind. "He was such a prolific writer. There was a weekly column in a local newspaper that he wrote for years, there were all his speeches, which he wrote himself. The local Greeley library and the University of Northern Colorado’s library were both just packed with stuff Kenny had written," he said.
Kenny became the heir-apparent of the family cattle business in 1944 after his older brother Dick was killed in a B-17 raid over Germany. In 1960, Kenny was able to convince his father Warren that if the family also slaughtered its own cattle they’d make more money than shipping the livestock all the way to Chicago to one of the big packers there. It was a radical idea, and financially the packing division was on very shaky ground for several years. By 1969, however, things had stabilized to the point that a public offering was made, and the name Monfort Packing was officially changed to Monfort of Colorado. By that time, too, Kenny had outfitted his plant in Greeley, Colo. – which, by the way, still comprises the basic structure of the headquarters operation of the company now called JBS-Swift – to process hanging carcasses into primal and subprimals, boxing the cuts for shipment rather than sending out swinging beef. Whether Monfort or someone else actually invented "boxed beef" will probably never be decided for certain, but the Monfort company was indisputably at the forefront of the revolution which changed beef packing in the U.S. forever.
"Kenny’s Shoes" also devotes considerable space to Kenny’s unique qualities as a manager. "He was a visionary and a hard worker with good timing," Barnhart said. "You put those things together and you’ve got the basis for quite a company. But he would be the first to say that he got where he did because he was a hard-working entrepreneur."
Kenny also had an uncanny ability with numbers, the author added. "It used to baffle people. They’d still be punching the numbers into their calculators and he already had the answer figured out in his head." Kenny took pride in knowing the names of all of his workers, yet he didn’t balk when the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (now UFCW) came in to organize the Monfort workforce. That decision may have been regretted later, when a bitter strike closed the company for a time in 1980.
By the 1980s, Kenny, who died in 2006 at the age of 78, understood that the industry was changing in ways he would have difficulty keeping up with. Deep-pocketed Occidential Petroleum and Cargill had bought IBP and Excel, respectively; huge ConAgra was also becoming a presence in the industry. After fighting in court against industry consolidation, Kenny finally sold his family’s company in 1987 to ConAgra. Through a twisted path of mergers and acquisitions, the operation finally wound up with the Bastista family from Brazil, where it remains today as JBS-Swift. Some old-timers have likened the Bastistas, who also come from a cattle-raising background, to the Monforts.
The book also reminds readers of the importance to the development of the modern U.S. beef industry of Warren Monfort, Kenny’s father. A veteran of World War I, Warren began feeding a few cattle when he was still a boy on his father’s farm. His sharp business sense, his eye for a good deal, and his willingness to experiment led Warren to establish one of the first large-scale cattle-feeding businesses in the U.S. – he was so successful that even at the height of the Great Depression, a local banker loaned Warren $200,000 in cash to expand his business. "Warren was the true foundation of the business," Barnhart told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Without him it wouldn’t have existed." Kenny’s mother Edith was just as remarkable in her own way: she spoke five languages, which was very unusual for a woman in her time, and she taught language in local schools.
The legacy of the Monfort family continues in Colorado with much more than a baseball team. The Monfort philanthropies have given money to dozens of non-profit organizations and have established scholarships at several schools. Monfort family money built an arts center in Greeley, a hiking trail along the Poudre River, and brought Meals on Wheels to rural Colorado. At the back of "Kenny’s Shoes," a list of organizations and charities that have benefited from Monfort donations numbers 112; in all, Barnhart records that from 1985 until Kenny’s death he and his wife Pat and the Monfort Family Charitable Foundation gave away $33 million.
Compared to today’s meat executives, "Kenny was kind of a throwback, but with a social conscience. It’s hard to say there wouldn’t be a place for him in today’s industry, because the industry still needs hard-working entrepreneurs," said the writer.