by Joel Crews
From the company’s 12th-floor, Strategic Sourcing Office, with Chicago’s Michigan Ave. as the picturesque backdrop, Smithfield Foods’ Henry Morris recalls one of his favorite lines from the classic cop film, “Dirty Harry.” In the 1971 movie’s climax, Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callahan, during a standoff with the film’s villain, asks: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”
Indeed, the senior corporate vice president of operations and engineering would admit he is lucky to play such a lofty role with the $12.2-billion pork behemoth. But luck had little to do with his ascension in the meat industry, where his name and reputation is highly regarded among his counterparts, coworkers and colleagues. Morris has earned an EF-Hutton-like reputation when he speaks, and equipment suppliers along with the industry at large are anxious to hear what he has to say, regardless of the venue. As the recipient of Meat&Poultry’s first Operations Executive of the Year award, Morris visited with Editor Joel Crews in February. He recounted his early influences and talked about the career path that first saw him work in aviation engineering before transitioning to several companies in the meat business. Despite the laid-back, baritone southern drawl with which Morris shared his story, it was hard to cover up an intensity, intelligence and work ethic that make him one of Smithfield’s most valuable assets.
A native Texan who grew up in Amarillo, Henry L. Morris graduated from Texas A&M Univ. in 1966 with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. The son of a geologist who was an alumni of in-state rival Univ. of Texas, it was his father who first taught Morris the value of a good work ethic. The elder worked for American Smelting and Refining throughout his entire career, at a zinc and copper refinery in Amarillo. “He believed in hard work and accountability for doing a good job. He was driven,” Morris recalls.
The Aggie graduate’s first job out of school was building F 111-A bombers for General Dynamics in Ft. Worth, Texas. After about six months of working on planes, “They put me on an accident-investigation team,” Morris recalls. He would spend most of the next year investigating planes that had experienced structural failure, often piecing together airplanes that had crashed.
“We had to figure out why, and fix it,” which the team did, only to have the GD contract expire and not renewed as part of the incoming Nixon Administration. Surviving a massive job cut, Morris decided to seek a more secure position and considered working in industries outside of avionics.
Enter: Robert Langford at Owens Country Sausage. “He needed a plant engineer. That was my first introduction to the processing floor,” in the early 1970s, he says. Reflecting on his impression when he walked into the processing plant for the first time, near Dallas, Morris says he was more than a little struck by the sights, sounds, aromas and the complexity of the many moving parts. It was quite a contrast to his previous career.
“I had been working on airplanes that were built to tolerances of a thousandth of an inch,” he says. “And now I’m going to be designing a conveyor that I can say, ‘well, if it’s about this long, it will be good enough,’” he laughs. “It was a totally different mindset.”
He cherished the opportunity to work with Owens back in the days when CB Owens was still alive, Jerry Owens was working with the company and a young man named Stewart Owens was paying his dues and working his way up the ranks. In his new career, while perhaps not as precise as building airplanes, Morris was challenged by the prospect of being responsible for the entire operation, from the moment hogs came through the door to the particulars of the wastewater treatment. Back in those days, the Owens plant was processing about 60 hogs per hour, “and you had to get meat to the chub machines; you had to get meat in the box and you had deliveries you had to make and schedules to meet.” The enormity of the responsibility was a career elixir for Morris. “It was really what I had longed for when I thought about being an engineer.”
The family owned mentality was alive and well at Owens and Morris was proud to be a part of the extended family, which often meant rolling up his sleeves and working in the trenches.
“I remember one Christmas we didn’t have enough workers,” he grins, “and I ended up driving hogs. That was the way you ran a family owned business. People did what they had to do to get the job done.” This was a far cry from the prevailing mindset at his previous job where people had a component piece of building and testing an airplane. “You didn’t really understand if you were designing a nose landing gear that there was an entire airplane on top of it.”
The Smithfield eras
After working in the sausage business at Owens for nearly a decade, Morris was approached by a recruiter “asking if I’d ever be interested in living in Virginia,” where Smithfield Foods is based.
Initially, he dismissed the opportunity. “I said ‘No, I love Dallas and I’m going to live here the rest of my life.’” But the recruiter talked Morris into “just visiting” Smithfield. “Come see what you think,” the voice on the other end of the phone said, and he did. Three days later, Morris was shaking hands on a deal made with Joe Luter and George Hamilton Jr. that he couldn’t refuse; working for a company he thought had an incredible future. “They certainly had a need for an engineer with my abilities, so I went to work for them,” he says.
He joined Smithfield as vice president of engineering at Smithfield Packing, back when ITT Gwaltney was across the street and Smithfield was not at all the acquisition machine it has become in the past decade. Eventually Smithfield would acquire Gwaltney and when an operations position at that plant became available, one of the applicants was Henry L. Morris. Given his experience up to that point, Morris was confident he could handle the position easily. He underestimated the scope of the position, however. “There are a lot of elements involved in the nuances of running a pork operation. It was a daunting task and a lot to learn for an engineer.”
Morris remembers well, the next, even bigger challenge a few years later. “I picked up the phone one day and it was Joe Luter,” he says. Luter told Morris he wanted him to spend two months in Tar Heel, NC, starting up what would be the largest hog plant in the country. “It turned into two years,” he says. Starting up that city-size plant, training thousands of workers, satisfying the demands of Smithfield Packing and Gwaltney was a mammoth undertaking. “I was mayor of that little city,” he says. “It was one of the most interesting times of my entire life.”
Part of that process involved meeting the extreme demands of the Japanese market and their expectations of consistency in their products and the processes used to manufacture the product. Since then, the plant has grown to a workforce of more than 4,000 and is one of the most productive plants in the world. “That was probably one of the highlights of my life,” Morris says of his time at the Tar Heel plant.
Morris would work at Smithfield from 1979 until the summer of 1995. It was then that he had an opportunity to pack his bags again and go to work for ConAgra. A huge lure for this position was that he would be based in one of his favorite cities. “I love Chicago. I’ve loved it ever since the first time I came here.” His stint with ConAgra would span about a decade before he stepped away to work as an independent engineering consultant.
He then heard in 2004 that Smithfield planned to build an $85 million ham plant in Kinston, NC, as part of a supplier agreement with Subway. “Larry [Pope] called me and said ‘What are you doing?’” The two would agree to a three-month consulting arrangement to get that facility up and running. “Those three months ended seven years ago,” he smirks, “and that’s kind of how I got where I am today.”
Looking back, Morris says he learned some of his early core beliefs and developed a career path based on working for people like Robert Langford at Owens. “One of the nicest men I’ve ever known in my entire life,” he says of Langford, who he also labels as smart, intelligent and gifted at doing his job. Langford taught Morris that “you can be successful in business and have fun at the same time.” Other mentors Morris mentions include George Hamilton and Joe Luter, who he says gave him the ability to succeed by achieving results, while expecting accountability along the way.
He also considers Smithfield President and CEO Larry Pope a key person in his successful career path in addition to being a game opponent on the racquetball court and a personal friend. Pope and Morris both started their careers at Smithfield at about the same time. “We kind of grew up together, he and I; and Bo Manly.” The people he’s bonded with over the years share a sense of high values and a strong work ethic. As he ponders more the like-minded contemporaries, he adds Lee Lochman, and Tim Harris from his days at ConAgra Meats. He also expresses his admiration for George Richter, who joined Smithfield when it acquired Farmland Foods and now holds the position of COO of the Pork Group. “He has that same drive for results and a strong work ethic.”
“They expected results; they expected you to know your business and they expected that if you’d say you would do it, then you do it. To me, that’s a good, strong, Midwestern work ethic and something we need to preserve as a country.”
Morris notes how the company’s strategic initiatives over the past several years require him to be nimble in his operational focus. Since 2007, Larry Pope’s mandate has included an emphasis on growing the company’s consumer packaged meats business. In this new era for Smithfield, overall capacity utilization has gone from less than 80 percent to more than 90 percent. The company consolidated its packaged meat plants from 36 to 30; independent operating companies went from seven to three; brands were slashed from 50 to 12; 10 retail sales divisions were cut to three; and the 20-plus computer systems utilized to keep track of it all were funneled to one. The mission now is to “look at all of our operations and improve the level of technology to the point that we really have a competitive advantage.” An example is when the company made the decision to build a new facility in North Carolina to manufacture coextruded hot dogs, just behind its processed ham plant. The new plant allows Smithfield to pasteurize products in the package, thus minimizing food-safety risks.
Outside the US, Morris has operational oversight of eight plants in Poland; one in Romania as well as shared oversight of Campofrio plants (Smithfield has 37 percent interest in the company) in Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. He routinely travels the globe to keep up with the demands of managing these operations. During his time in Europe he has noticed retail packages are smaller and shoppers tend to buy smaller quantities, more frequently than in the US. He goes on to say, “they have an edge in automation because they are dealing with 30-Euro-per-hour labor. It gets to be so important that they automate every place they can. We have got to take advantage of the technology they develop in order to streamline our operations.” He admits operations and volumes in some European plants are often a fraction of those in the US, but that doesn’t mean the technology cannot be adopted by plants in the states.
As an example, he says equipment used in a coextrusion plant Campofrio operates in Madrid, where original, 27 year-old equipment on five lines “is almost as efficient as the ones that are being made today.” The Madrid plant was designed nearly three decades ago, to operate as a typical coextrusion plant, including building the ropes, making the links, cooking and packaging the products. “But then they had all these people in the operation packaging off the finished product,” he says with a squint, apparently still thinking of a better way. This labor-intensive part of the operation continued until just a couple of years ago, when Campofrio was approached by an automation company based in Girona, Spain and was encouraged to consider its automation solutions designed for packaging equipment. The two companies partnered on an automation campaign, and the solution, says Morris, is nothing short of amazing. “These little packages of hot dogs come sliding down a ramp, onto a vibrating conveyor,” he says, tapping his fingertips on the table in front of him as if playing an imaginary piano. “They go through a camera and all of a sudden a robot picks them up and places them in a box,” ensuring each package is inspected for leaks and proper packaging.
“Every element of that pack-off is handled by robotics, and there’s only one person in that room.” He says this is a lesson that could be applicable at the new plant in North Carolina by reducing the manpower significantly. “That spurred our thinking into believing, ‘hey, we can automate the tail end of that operation and make it just as cost effective as we’re making the coextrusion process.”
Since incorporating the changes at the Madrid plant, Smithfield has learned of similar technologies manufactured in the US. “We are excited that we have the ability now to invest in technology that is going to give us a strategic advantage.”
Just having the opportunity to interact with the processors in Europe gives Smithfield the opportunity to look at new and different ways to refine their operations domestically as the company is constantly seeking to answer the question- “how can we achieve that competitive advantage?” says Morris. The slightest advantage can make a significant difference when considering the scale of production a company like Smithfield operates. Bacon is a prime example. “We make 650 million lbs. of bacon per year on 78 bacon lines,” which represents one-third of all bacon produced in the US for foodservice and retail customers, says Morris. The movement afoot now is to apply technology to make these operations more efficient. “We should be able to automate those lines and modernize those lines so that we do, in fact, have a competitive edge.”
Among the hundreds of conferences and trade shows Morris has attended in his storied career, one in particular stands out more than the rest. At an automation conference he attended in in 2003, Nancy Donley was the keynote speaker. Donley, whose son, Alex, died in 1993 after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7 at the age of 6, is well known for promoting safer food production. She has since worked to educate consumers about safe food production and plays a key role in carrying out the mission of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP). During that presentation, during an automation conference of all things, Donley made it very apparent to all of those in attendance, including Morris, of the enormity of the responsibility the food industry has to produce safe food.
“I had never taken the time to think of it that way,” he says. Considering that in many cases, Smithfield produces meat one day that is in 49 states the next day, “If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do you can have an impact on a huge number of people,” he says. And after hearing Donley’s story about her son, Morris says there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including his. “It’s made food safety a passion for me.”
Ironically, Morris suffered from E. coli poisoning four years ago, while traveling in Amsterdam. After spending three days in the hospital and thanks to the medical expertise of doctors in Holland, he recovered. That experience affirmed his commitment to food safety even more.
“When you wake up and look yourself in the mirror each morning, you think about the responsibility you have to feed people safely.” Morris will never forget one of the final slides in Donley’s presentation that read: “You hold the lives of the future in your hands,” alongside a photograph of Alex.
Food and worker safety, as well as preserving the integrity of the environment, are the top operational priorities for Smithfield, he says. Next would be product consistency followed closely by customer satisfaction.
“And with our continuous improvement process, we have an unrelenting need to look at every non-value-added activity in our operations and see what we can do to eliminate it or minimize it.”
When he considers how the medical field has benefited from robotics and arthroscopic technology, “I stop and think, ‘this industry is not even close to that kind of technology.’ There is technology out there that is highly developed,” in terms of how advanced and precise robotics can be. “The thing that robotics buys for you is not only that you can run a more efficient operation, but you run a more food-safe operation. You’ve taken some of the pathogens out of the picture and you have a much more advanced workforce.”
The hurdle for many companies considering implementing robotics and automation is costs, but for any more it is a matter of not seeing the whole picture, Morris says. Too often robots are developed by individual companies without considering the equipment before or after them. “I might have robotics that do pick-and-place for finished product at the end of the line but it doesn’t integrate with the entire line, which is shortsighted.”
When asked what would top his operational wish-list, Morris addresses bacon-production possibilities. “I would like to see an integrated bacon line, from soup to nuts,” from the press all the way through to palletizing. “So that if you turned on the switch, it would be like starting a car; everything works, and everything works with each other so the operation runs continuously, without problems,” he adds.
The ability to develop an automated and integrated line is one potentially positive result of the ongoing supplier consolidation trend. For companies with portfolios that are expanding to include equipment used to process raw material all the way through to cooking and packaging, integrating and automating is one step closer to reality. “You’re getting there,” says Morris
Pondering the possibilities for his company, he marvels, “What an exciting time to be with Smithfield.”
Always on the move
More often than not, Morris is working around a bustling processing operation, not a polished boardroom table. “Everyone agrees that I’m doing more of what I do if I’ve got my hands on the plant operations. We’re looking at different ways to improve technology; ways to educate people; fundamental problems in plant operations and new possibilities.” And with all the moving parts involved in its operations, the only thing that is consistent in being in Morris’ position is variation. There is no typical week or schedule, and he’s OK with that. “I’m always on the move.”
He also is a firm believer in and supporter of education and bringing the next generation into the industry. “Before I retire, I feel compelled to establish some kind of program to educate our kids so we grow our own leaders.”
To this end, Morris is actively involved in Smithfield’s Meat and Poultry Training Program, where Smithfield executives work with current employees to pass along knowledge and share experiences with the company’s next generation of leaders. Working with meat science experts at Iowa State Univ., the company selects up to 45 employees at a time to go through the one-year program to learn about all aspects of Smithfield’s vast operations. To date, about 250 workers throughout all segments of the company have been through the training, “to teach them more about their company.”
The goal is to identify employees thought to be promotable not once, but twice. As part of the program, Smithfield also gives them the opportunity to work within the company and challenges them to identify untapped operational efficiencies. Many of them have, and the opportunities they have discovered have translated into millions of dollars in savings for Smithfield. “It teaches them ‘to keep your eyes open; keep your focus on things that you are doing.’”
“I think of myself as a team builder,” says Morris in reflecting how he has successfully managed the operations at one of the world’s largest meat processors. He admits team building is made easier “by having incredibly good people around me all my life. People make you what you are.”
Besides his counterparts working in the trenches of the meat-processing industry, Morris counts those people running the companies serving the processors among those having an impact on his career.
“Some of the people who have made an impact on me in this world have been in the supplier industry,” he says. While people working in operations and engineering often approach suppliers with a ‘what- have-you-done-for-me-lately’ mindset, Morris believes this community of equipment and service providers are a critical part of his success. “They really are our partners in technology and partners in efficiency and in getting the job done correctly. Our industry has many good suppliers.”
While recommending the value in reading the management principles book, “The Toyota Way,” written by Jeffrey Liker, Morris recalls a chapter focused on the value of maintaining a positive vendor-supplier relationship, a theory he enthusiastically endorses. “It’s a relationship you have to foster so that they understand when you have a problem and you can work together to solve the problem.”
The supplier community has consolidated considerably in recent years, not unlike the processing industry. Morris says consolidation among suppliers, on its own, doesn’t have a negative effect, as long as the emphasis on service doesn’t become a casualty of a merger or acquisition. In some cases, “we’ve seen some of our service disappear,” he says, and that is a vital element. When this occurs “they open the door for their competitors to steal business from them.”
Morris counts his wife, Judy, among the most influential people in his life and the person who has enabled him to be successful for many years in a job that requires extensive travel and long hours.
“She’s provided the stability for our family and made a home,” he says of his wife of 29 years. The couple each came to the marriage with two children, none of whom are pursuing careers in the meat business. When not traveling for business, Morris and his wife enjoy traveling the world, “for education and sightseeing.” In the past year, the they have had their passports stamped in Norway, France, England, Spain and Belgium. “But Paris is my favorite European city, and it’s Judy’s favorite,” he says.
In between trips to Smithfield plants, Morris and his wife are also active in serving the Peninsula SPCA in Southeast Virginia, where he also serves on the executive board. He and Judy have derived plenty of joy from their work with the SPCA, while also showering affection on their dog, Bandit.
He’s also involved in many other causes in and around Virginia, including the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity.
Morris can’t imagine what other career he might have pursued if he hadn’t gone into the meat business. “I’m basically happy doing what I’m doing,” he says with a wry smirk. “Maybe it’s because I’m such a simple thinker.”
When the topic turns to retirement, the 69-year-old Morris shrugs off the notion. “I’m having too much fun,” he says. Mildly bristling, he adds: “I’m not talking about retirement yet. I am enjoying the daily challenges. They may have to run me off.”