Back in the saddle
by Joel Crews
The picturesque view out the window of his office at Loveland, Colo.-based Meyer Natural Foods is a stark contrast to the tenth-floor office overlooking downtown Wichita, Kan., Bill Rupp grew accustomed to after a decades-long career at Cargill Meat Solutions (CMS). Before joining Meyer as CEO in February 2009, Rupp spent the previous 25 years working his way up the corporate ladder at Cargill and ultimately lead the $15 billion company and its 35,000 employees.
Leading Meyer, a $350 million company with 120 employees, is a refreshing change for Rupp, who still lives in Wichita and commutes to Loveland, about 50 miles north of Denver, each week. The company may be smaller in scope, but the challenges are just as big as those he faced in his former role. Indeed, Rupp values and applies the lessons he learned at Cargill, which is also a key partner in Meyer’s growth plan.
A 1983 graduate from the Univ. of South Dakota, Rupp immediately went to work for the company then known as Excel, as an in-plant, operations-focused worker. Rupp spent most of his first decade working on the production floor, eventually playing an integral role in constructing and running Cargill’s beef plant in High River, Alberta. Later, he ran the company’s beef slaughtering and processing facility in Friona, Texas. “I got my degree in packinghouse during those 10 years,” Rupp jokes.
In 1995, he was promoted to the position of vice president of operations at Cargill’s meat businesses in Wichita, where he worked for about four years before stepping in to run Cargill Beef. Rupp then was appointed president of CMS and worked in that role for a decade before retiring in December of 2008.
“And then I took about four months off,” says Rupp, who took this time to work more closely with charitable organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Sedgwick County, a charity Cargill has and continues to support for years. Rupp has for the previous three years served as a “Big Brother” to a 12-year-old in Wichita who is part of the program. He’s also been active in a start-up charity known as Lose the Training Wheels, a not-for-profit focused on giving children with disabilities the opportunity to ride bicycles. “It’s been fun to work with a notfor-profit that’s trying to find itself and grow while at the same time working for a for-profit business that’s trying to find itself and grow,” Rupp says. Paying it forward is a priority these days, as he moves into the next chapter of his career. “One of the things I want to make sure I do is give back and give back in a way that energizes me,” he says, and helping children and especially kids with disabilities provides that spark. He had the luxury of time to pursue these endeavors after leaving Cargill and when negotiations later began with Meyer founder, Robert Meyer, Rupp made it clear that charity work was something he planned to continue as part of his role. “Bob’s been great and very supportive of my continued involvement in those things.”
Looking back at how his tenure with Cargill came to a close, Rupp says there was no tipping point at which he decided to retire, and he wasn’t asked to consider stepping away. He says it was a gut feeling that after a decade, it was time for a change for the good of the company and himself.
“After 10 years in any one role, leadership probably gets stagnant and needs to see change,” Rupp says. As he considered stepping down from his role, other opportunities were made available within the company, but nothing that sparked interest in the veteran leader. Additionally, when he weighed the option of staying the course at Cargill, Rupp says, “I didn’t think it was fair to the team there; it was an outstanding team, a great business and I thought it was time for a change.”
He announced his retirement in late 2008. Jody Horner, another Cargill veteran, was appointed as Rupp’s successor with John Keating leading the beef business. “My guess is they’ve taken that business well beyond where I would have taken it over the past couple of years,” Rupp says.
The next chapter
While Cargill had a succession plan in place, Rupp admits, “I walked away without a clue of what I wanted to do other than knowing I wanted to be challenged.” Part of his post-Cargill life has included an education process achieved by serving on the board of directors of SignalDemand, a software company specializing in pricing optimization for the meat and poultry industry. His involvement with the firm, he says, has been interesting, rewarding and, as he hoped, challenging. While it seemed the next career move might include a high-tech twist, Rupp, like most other meat industry veterans, felt a pull back toward the business he knew so well. Apparently you can take the man out of the meat business but the opposite doesn’t hold true.
“It’s funny,” Rupp laughs, “you get the meat industry in your blood…” and often an old acquaintance can evolve into a business opportunity. After Rupp’s departure from Cargill, his phone rang and on the other end was Meyer founder Robert Meyer, a longtime colleague. Meyer invited Rupp to visit him in California to discuss potential business arrangements. Although Rupp admits never really considering himself for-hire, he was intrigued by the possibilities. After their West Coast meeting, Rupp agreed to work in a consulting role with Meyer. About two months later, his title elevated from consultant to “president.” Meyer says bringing on Rupp to run his 20-year-old business has already proven to be a wise decision.
“Bill has a great leadership style,” Meyer says. “He does a wonderful job of helping people understand how they fit into a company’s big picture. But most importantly, he shares my dreams and passions for the business.”
The Meyer business model is vastly different from the one Rupp had grown accustomed to. “We’re a sales and marketing business that purchases two raw materials. One of those raw materials is a live animal and the other is processing capacity,” he says. “We are not managing the millions of dollars of risk that Cargill or Tyson is, obviously, so our needs are dramatically different than theirs are.”
He points out that a company the size of Cargill is largely comprised of many subject-matter experts in each of its business segments. Meanwhile, a smaller company like Meyer, with two locations and less than 100 people on the payroll, requires its employees to wear many hats, all with the depth and breadth that contribute to the successful operation and profitability of the company. “The people here don’t come in and do just one thing; they’re jacks of all trades,” he says.
Rupp is far more hands-off than he ever was during his career at Cargill. A big part of that is because of the well-rounded capabilities of the team under him. Rupp recalls the words of his former boss, Bill Buckner, who always referred to himself as the “coach.”
“I never stopped and thought about that when I was at Cargill, but I do now because that really is my role now at Meyer,” he says. “They don’t let me buy anything and they don’t let me sell anything, but they do let me do some coachin,’” says Rupp of his new role. “You get to know everybody and in many ways it is much less formal,” than what he was used to.
Meyer’s procurement team maintains a mindset of buying cattle and compensating producers for the animal, including the cost incurred for raising the animal without hormones or antibiotics. Producers also need to have financial incentives to be a Meyer partner vs. taking their cattle “to the big guys.” One key to the success of the company is maintaining and growing its network of producers and keeping up with the production practices of its suppliers and tracing the cattle back to the farm level, unlike many of its commodity-based competitors. All of Meyer’s producers and its products are held to the animal-welfare standards established by Certified Humane, which audits and validates livestock handling practices from the ranch to the slaughter facility.
Because Meyer doesn’t own any processing facilities, it rents space from processing partners, including Cargill’s Ft. Morgan, Colo. plant, Greater Omaha Packing and American Foods Group in Alexandria, Minn. The quality of the companies combined with their geographic locations made them logical choices. “There was a lot of supply in Western Nebraska and eastern Colorado that was, from a freight standpoint, prohibitive for us,” which made Rupp’s decision to bring Cargill into the mix a profitable one. Meanwhile, the Laura’s Lean Beef brand, which Meyer (then known as Meyer Natural Angus) acquired in early 2008, has enjoyed a successful partnership with AFG to process most of its ground beef and case-ready products, which still include labels with founder Laura Freeman’s smiling face on them.
Greater Omaha has, for years, been the most-used processor, but as Rupp and his team plan for future growth, those processor partnerships are expected to expand and their respective pieces of the growing pie will increase. Meyer ensures customers of its foodsafety commitment by touting its partnerships with these processing companies, all of which have earned enviable reputations for raising the bar on producing wholesome meat products.
Even after the acquisition, the Laura’s Lean business continued to be run as a separate entity from the Meyer brand, in some cases, even competing against each other. Addressing this identity issue was one of Rupp’s first initiatives.
He says the challenge was, “How do we take two visions, two brands and two businesses and turn it into one vision, two brands and one business ?” First, Rupp wanted to establish a direction for the Meyer Natural Angus brand. “This is the greatest story never told,” says Rupp, who’s made brand awareness a top priority for the company. Meyer’s products and marketing message historically promoted it as both a natural brand and a premium line, which created some confusion in the market. The opportunities for profiting from the much larger premium segment were quickly identified by Rupp and his team and that is the thrust of the current focus: Building awareness around Meyer’s premium products and that eating experience while promoting the “natural” aspect as an attribute to that experience.
To balance the sales effort of the Laura’s Lean products and Meyer’s Natural Angus, the sales teams have been melded and work in four regional sales territories focused on retail customers. Another foodservice-focused sales team, made up largely of classically trained chefs, work in three regions alongside foodservice distributors. The culinary-based sales approach has been a success, according to Rupp.
“Chefs speak a very unique language and if you can get our chef talking directly with their chef, it’s pretty interesting,” he says of the segment that constitutes about 20 percent of the company’s business currently, but represents a bevy of potential.
Another behind-the-scenes transition has involved bringing the two product lines under the same system umbrella in terms of administrating and logistical considerations. As part of this endeavor, Meyer announced this past June that Cargill will market the Laura’s Lean brand and Meyers Natural Angus products to its network of foodservice and retail customers.
“There are two consumer groups out there,” Rupp says, “one is looking for a heart-healthy solution to beef and the other one is looking for a premium eating experience,” and Meyer’s and Laura’s products appeal to consumers in each segment. One area of opportunity for the Laura’s brand, which has traditionally targeted retail customers, is in the institutional segment, including niches such as college campuses, hospitals and extended-care/retirement communities, where hearthealthy offerings are in demand. Rupp says the company recently reached an agreement to extend distribution of the Laura’s products to include the U.S. Dept. of Defense’s Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), which operates commissaries at U.S. military bases all over the world.
As for exporting opportunities, Meyer is not yet exploiting the markets fully as the domestic business warrants attention first. Rupp says, however, that shipping beef to customers in Asia and European Union countries is something the company is dabbling in now and hopes to grow in the coming years.
Early this past February, Rupp and the sales and marketing teams from both brands put their heads together to develop a plan for achieving growth goals. Needless to say, part of that growth plan includes profitability growth by creating brand awareness and telling the Meyer story. Marketing the two brands in a complimentary way to customers by offering Meyer’s premium eating experience as one option and the health and wellness at- tributes of Laura’s Lean as another, is also part of the plan, which was announced this past March.
Armed with this strategy and two strong brands, Meyer’s has set an aggressive five-year goal for growing sales, but Rupp stops short of quantifying that aggressiveness. Customer service is a part of the push and Meyer has taken a page from the sales team representing the Laura’s Lean products, who earned a reputation for working directly with meat department managers to ensure premium merchandising of their products by working face-toface with them at the store level. This approach is now applied system-wide as part of telling the Meyer story as close to the ear of the consumer as possible.
With offices in Lexington, Ky., and Loveland Colo., and Bob Meyer based in California, the parts of the Meyer business are geographically scattered. Additionally, Rupp still resides in Wichita, but that may change one day. “My wife and I have always had our hearts and eyes set on living in Colorado,” he says, and the couple is considering moving west after the last of his children are out of high school. Bob has empowered Rupp to run the business on a daily basis but remains very active in the macro-management of the company. The two check in with each other weekly when time permits and get together as part of team meetings and especially in developing strategies for its value-added business.
“Meyer Natural Foods has gone well beyond my expectations when I started the company 20 years ago with the ranch,” Meyer says. “We set out with the sole purpose of providing the best-tasting natural beef possible, with an emphasis on humane handling and being good stewards of our land. Today , we’ve grown to be a full-service beef company that specializes in hearthealthy and premium natural beef programs,” including an e-commerce site and a line of sous vide products.
Face-to-face meetings between Meyer and Rupp usually occur about every six weeks. Rupp values the time the two spend during these meetings. “He’s obviously a very successful man and the kind of person you can learn a lot from.”