SPECIAL REPORT: Cargill Meat Solutions' Bill Rupp discusses retirement, beef industry

by Bryan Salvage
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WICHITA — Bill Rupp, who served as business unit leader of Cargill Beef and president of Cargill Meat Solutions, will end his 25-year career at Cargill on Feb. 1 to pursue philanthropic and entrepreneurial opportunities. Before moving on to the next phase in his life, Mr. Rupp agreed to spend some time with MEATPOULTRY.COM to talk about his tenure at C.M.S. and the U.S. beef industry, in general. Here’s what he had to say.

MP.com: Several months ago it was announced you are leaving Cargill Meat Solutions early in 2009. What will you be doing? What led to this decision?

Rupp: From a philanthropic standpoint, there’s an organization called "Lose the Training Wheels" (www.losethetrainingwheels.org) that teaches children with disabilities how to ride bicycles -- and it’s a pretty phenomenal process. We’re mobile and we go around the country to conduct week-long camps. The kids ride a bike for an hour a day for five days. By the end of the week, we have an 85 percent success rate teaching these children how to ride bikes.

MP.com: What led to making your decision to leave Cargill?

Rupp: I have been running Cargill’s beef business the last 10 years. While the beef business is never lacking for excitement and opportunity, it just seemed like a good time to pass the torch and pursue other challenges. Cargill has been a great company to work for and I thank them greatly for the opportunities they have given me, but it seemed like from a personal standpoint there was more I needed to do to become more well-rounded.

MP.com: How long have you been with C.M.S.?

Rupp: Twenty-five years. I started right out of college. I graduated from the Univ. of South Dakota in 1983 with a BS degree in Business Administration.

MP.com: Please provide a history of your tenure at C.M.S.

Rupp: I started with the company in 1983 and Excel (which later was renamed Cargill Meat Solutions) sent me to Wichita for a week for orientation. Back then, Excel had plants in Plainview and Friona, Texas; Dodge City, Kan. and Rockport, Mo.


MP.com: What was your first company position?

Rupp: I was a management trainee. Back then that meant you strapped on your knives and your safety equipment, said a few "Hail Marys" and went out and started cutting meat. There really wasn’t a set training program at the time. I started right on the floor of the packing house. I had never been in a packing house until that time. I scratched my head a lot wondering why I went to four years of college to stand there with a knife in my hand cutting meat. But I soon realized that the meat industry was all about people.

I was in Friona, Texas for about six years after first joining the company. From there, I went to High River, Alberta, Canada, where we built the plant in High River. I got to participate in building and starting up a packing house, which was an incredible experience and one that doesn’t happen very often in our industry.

I was up there for nearly four years. Then I went back to Friona as general manager. It’s interesting to go back to a place where everybody taught me the business and now they were all going to work for me. From a behavioral standpoint, that was a very interesting move in my career. We had to form a team and be successful as a team. That was a great learning experience.

I came to Wichita in 1995 as the operations vice president Once again, I went from being one in a group of peers to leading a group of peers.

At the time, Cargill was challenging Excel’s business performance and I’d say we were an average business at best at the time. They asked ‘What are you going to do to make this business top-notch?’ We set out a plan to spend some of Cargill’s capital and invest it in our facilities. We spent close to $1 billion over the next 13 years leading up to where we are today.

MP.com: Who are some of the people you admire for what they have done for the meat industry?

Rupp: Definitely you’d have to call out Greg Page, who’s the chairman of Cargill today. He ran the beef business and meat business for Cargill back in the 1990s. I think he clearly brought an appreciation that the meat industry was more than just putting meat in a box and sending it to consumers; it was a people business and we had to invest in people. He really brought that to light.

Lanny Binger who ran Cargill’s beef business prior to me is another person I greatly admire. Lanny always made business fun, but he also knew you had to make a profit to be in business at the end of the day. He always kept it fun and kept it real. I’d also add Bill Buckner. Bill knew how to push the right buttons, but he also knew how to get out of the way and let me learn by experience.

MP.com: What led to your decision to enter the beef industry?

Rupp: My grandfather raised Black Angus cattle in south central Iowa in a little town called Corning.

I was never much of a farm boy. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and was as much of a city boy as you can be growing up in Iowa. When I graduated from college in 1983, it was a tough time economically in the world. There weren’t a lot of job offers out there, but I got a job offer from Excel. It made my grandfather proud at the time that I was in the beef industry. It really connected with me because it was such a people-oriented business.

When people come to the beef industry, a lot of them have a deep background in the animal side of the industry. But in my case, it was the people side that made it such an invigorating career.

MP.com: What were your major accomplishments while at C.M.S.?

Rupp: Although industry still has a lot of work to do to continue, I’d say over the 25 years of my career with the support of a good company like Cargill, we’ve made tremendous strides in how we treat our people by focusing on behaviors and leadership. Both are every bit as important as achieving the results that are necessary to run a successful business. We always said if you manage the business above the bottom line, the bottom line will fall in place.

MP.com: What do you see as a major challenge or opportunity for meat companies in becoming more acclimated to the changing makeup of the U.S. workforce?

Rupp: I’m a big proponent of immigration reform. I think it’s necessary. You could argue whether or not we’re in a thriving economy right now, but it will be thriving again. And when it happens, it will take the people to fuel whatever industry there is. In our industry, people are critical. They’re just not available today for the meat industry. I don’t think there are too many packing plants in the country that are staffed to the point they would like to be.

We have to figure out a way to work with government and come up with successful immigration reforms where not only the beef industry but all industries can find the work forces they need.


MP.com: What were your greatest challenges while at C.M.S.?

Rupp: One of the things we did make some progress on, but I remain frustrated with today, is beef remains primarily a commodity item today. Industry needs to realize that you have to start with the consumer and work backwards; you have to figure out what the consumer expects out of beef. People want a tender, reasonably priced eating experience on a consistent basis. The beef industry can do that today, but it has to align its various sectors to accomplish this goal.

Cargill has some examples of that in what we’ve done with some of our alignments that produce guaranteed tender products for customers like Safeway and Harris Teeter today. But there’s still not enough beef out there today that’s sold with the consumer in mind.

MP.com: Looking back, how has the U.S. beef industry changed over the years during your career and what has fueled these changes?

Rupp: There are two areas that have changed positively. Employee safety is one...people are a precious asset. We must continue to do what we can to increase their safety. All companies have invested greatly in employee safety. As a result, it’s a much better industry from a safety standpoint today than it ever has been.

Second is food safety. The consumer expects when they pick up a steak, roast or hamburger from a store or restaurant that they’re going to enjoy this eating experience and not have to worry about the safety of what they’re eating. Industry has invested billions of dollars in making sure that happens. However, we continue to have breakdowns in the chain. I think it’s immensely safer than it ever was; clearly, products are used more widely and vastly around the globe than they ever were before.

MP.com: Industry continues to contend with anti-meat interest groups. What can industry do to help set the record straight in these areas for a growing population that has minimal knowledge about producing cattle and processing beef?

Rupp: Sadly, there isn’t an easy answer. Over the course of time, the meat industry hasn’t been a very open industry. It hasn’t readily shared things with consumers or with media for that matter. Most of our media exposure has been with the trade media with the exception of whenever we have an ‘Oh, my God!’ situation and then the mainstream media will pick up on this, too. I think the players in the industry have to look at how do we make ourselves more accessible to media; successes that have occurred in the industry are usually where they have been very transparent and open.


MP.com: I have sat in on industry sessions where industry was being encouraged not to answer the media’s questions directly, but just to talk about what they wanted to convey...kind of like a politician’s tact, if you will. Hopefully, that will change.

Rupp: It’s going to have to change ...where you don’t fill in the gap, someone else will fill it in for you. I think that’s typically what has happened in the meat industry. There have been so many gaps; and where there are gaps there is distrust so therefore, those gaps must get filled in.

It goes back to consumers who go into the grocery store to buy a beef product. They’re not buying Cargill, Tyson or Swift beef...they’re buying beef from the grocery store they choose; they don’t know who any of those meat companies are, by and large. And it’s because we have not been out in front and proactive with our stories.


MP.com: How about beef products at C.M.S...how have they changed over the years and what has fueled these changes?

Rupp: We’ve tried to make some products where we understood what the consumer wanted, and we went out and engineered a supply chain to deliver on those products. And where we’ve done that — and we’ve had partners up and down the supply chain from the cow-calf producer through the feedlot and packing house and onto the retailer — where we‘ve been able to put together that alignment, we’ve had some great successes in getting consumers reasonably-priced products that provide a good eating experience.

 

MP.com: Looking forward, how might the U.S. beef industry further change in the future?

Rupp: Capital and money are harder to come by. The banking industry is a huge player impacting the entire way the cattle industry works. Is there going to be the money in the future to fuel the supplies we’ve had in the past? Is it going to work as it has in the past, I’d say probably not. Along with a lot of things that have resulted in fewer and fewer cattle supplies over the years, I think these issues are going to fuel a continued downturn in the cattle supply. Our feeding industry, you could argue, is at over capacity and that needs to be rationalized. You could argue that our packing industry is over capacity and that’s going to have to be rationalized. All of those things will come with pain for some of the players.


MP.com: What are your personal goals for the future?

Rupp: I want to get into some areas where I feel like I’m ‘giving back’. Lose the Training Wheels is a good example of such a venture. I’m also involved in Big Brothers, Big Sisters here in Kansas. I want to make sure I’m giving back.

And at the same time on a personal note, I want to make sure I’m intellectually challenged. This may come in conjunction with the meat industry or totally outside the meat industry. I want to stay relevant in the world and continue to challenge myself to learn and grow. I’m going to be very open to listening to what my opportunities are and try to select the right ones. I tend to be a bit of a ‘Ready, fire -- aim’ personality. I challenged myself to take a little downtime and spend some time with my family and then at the first of the year start slowly to put the pieces of the puzzle back together to decide what my life is going to look like going forward.

I think it’s going to be fun. I have had a lot of interesting phone calls so far tying into the future. I think it’s going to be a very interesting next 25 years of my life.


MP.com: It sounds you’re not ruling out working with the meat industry again in the future....

Rupp: No, definitely not. I have a great love for the beef industry. If there are places I believe I can fit in and help the industry as a whole, maybe around creating customer solutions and things like that — that would be very interesting for me. But I don’t want to go back into the grind of running a meat business six days a week... there are a lot of smarter people out there than me who can do that. I want to look for different challenges in the meat industry...probably not being in a leadership role with one of the big companies...that’s really not what I’m looking for. It’s more about where can I get in and create some value and hopefully build some business models that can help the whole industry become more successful.

MP.com: Any closing remarks?

Rupp: Going back to major accomplishments...we talked a little about people. One of the big things we stood for, too, is community. I think folks at any organization want to give back and they look for opportunities to do that. What we did was match employees’ volunteerism with our charitable contributions and supported our employees’ volunteerism. We’ve had some great stories over the years. One that’s most current is here in Kansas. Between our plant in Dodge City and corporate office in Wichita, we have more than 125 people who volunteer as Big Brothers or Big Sisters in those two communities. We support each of those volunteers with a $1,000 charitable contribution for the year of service they give.

When you can do those things, you give your people pride in their organization. They know their company is giving back to the community and they are part of the community. As a source of pride, I think we’ve done a great job of that over the years. It’s fun. I can certainly walk down Main St. with my head held high in either of those communities in Kansas. And the community really recognizes it.

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