Innovative icon

by Bernard Shire
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Jon Rocke, Sandridge/RMH Foods
Jon Rocke, former CEO and president of RMH Foods, transformed a small family owned business into a nationally recognized manufacturer of fully cooked foods.

Morton, Illinois, is a small town of about 15,000 located not far from Peoria in the central part of the state. Morton is quite well known for a city of its size. It’s known for its pumpkins and its annual Morton Pumpkin Festival. In fact, there is a claim that 85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin is produced in Morton, earning it the title of “Pumpkin Capital of the World.”

But that’s not all it’s known for. Morton could also be described as a hot spot in the world of meat processing, thanks, in large part to Jon Rocke.

To say Rocke is an icon in the industry is probably underplaying his role. A better way to describe the former CEO and president of RMH Foods is “transformational.” He has taken what was a small family business in the Midwest – a not-very-big, locally focused retailer – to a nationally recognized manufacturer of fully cooked entrees. Today he is sales director for Sandridge/RMH Foods. But he grew up in the family meat business. RMH was started by his grandfather Jesse in 1937, then run by his father Wayne. Rocke spent four years in Indiana working for a regional supermarket chain, while getting his college degree at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana.

“The truth is, I wasn’t expecting to stay in the meat business,” Rocke laughs.

He was so serious about changing the direction of his life that his college degree is in biblical studies, languages and theology, with an eye toward the ministry. In fact, he graduated summa cum laude from Grace College in 1984.

“But I went back to Morton to work in the meat business and I fell in love with it,” he explains. “I knew then the meat industry was where I was going to be.”

By 1992, he was president of RMH. He immediately began building on the strong value and entrepreneurial foundation he inherited from his grandfather and father.

“From 1957 to 1990, the scope of our business didn’t change, but the size and the sophistication did,” Rocke points out. “My father was a very aggressive person, and we were downstate Illinois’ largest independent slaughter plant. We also did custom processing and retail sales, and I got involved in the business very early.

“By the time I was nine years old, I was coming home from school, hanging offal and making lard – things nobody else wanted to do.” The Rocke family had someone else running the retail end of things. But the retail manager retired. “My dad didn’t know about toilet paper or diapers or the other things we were selling – just meat.” So while the retail part of the business was retained, the name of the company became Rocke’s Meating Haus, with the emphasis on the meat part of the business.

FAMILY TRAITS

There’s no doubt Jon Rocke inherited the ambition of his father. He moved the business far ahead of what was typical for its time.

“Our back end was custom slaughter and processing. We made our front end a ‘carriage trade’ – meat and a hot deli – the first deli of its kind in Central Illinois.”

Thanks to the drive of Rocke and his father, Rocke’s Meating Haus became a destination business in the state.

“People were willing to drive in those days – they came from Chicago all the way downstate. We decided to sell USDA prime that came from our back shop and we had a federal grader come out.”

Rocke made the company a “meeting house” as well as a meating house. “We put in chairs and tables for seating. I really grew up in the retail front – cutting meat in the prime shop – waiting on customers. I became very good with people, and I was able to sell our products. I wanted to have the whole supply chain from harvesting to processing. We did a lot of smoked ham and bacon, and we were involved in the AAMP (American Association of Meat Packers) cured meat product shows.”

Rocke notes, though, that things began changing in the meat industry in the 1980s.

“When I was growing up, all farms in Illinois had livestock as well as grain. Today, the only livestock on a lot of farms is the family dog,” he jokes. At the same time, a lot of the small “locker plants” from the time were also disappearing.

“That changed the business, and I knew I had to do something,” Rocke says. “I knew we had to reinvent ourselves.” And that’s what Rocke has done throughout his career. A couple of years ago, Rocke and his wife Jolene reignited the business by putting together two concepts – a farmer’s market strategy as well as mail order.

“When I look back at RMH, our meat businesses, I see three pillars that I’ve always set up for us,” Rocke says. “They are ‘people, promises and possibilities,’” he says. “The meat industry is a people business, and I’ve always felt that people are the most important part of it,” he says. “Some people in the industry think it’s all about the animals, the processing, the selling, how good a butcher you are. And it’s true, the animals are important, the products, the sales. But it all really comes down to your relationships with other people; building those relationships. This industry starts and ends with people. If we’re not in business for people, who we’re helping to feed, then what are we in it for?

“Promises in this business are very important – keeping your word. To everybody you deal with, including both customers and vendors. The people you have relationships with in this industry have to be able to trust you, or it’s not going to work out.

“And the third pillar is ‘possibilities’. You can’t be afraid to be innovative. I’m not afraid of innovation, I’ve done a lot of innovation in my career – and you can’t succeed in this industry if you’re not innovative. You have to think that you can do anything, that anything is possible in this business.”

ALWAYS INNOVATING

One of Rocke’s great innovations for his business, he thinks, was getting involved in restaurant purveying. “We got very involved in NAMP,” which was then known as the National Association of Meat Purveyors, he says. “By being involved in NAMP, we learned how to be in the purveying business and how to succeed. So I made the back end of our business restaurant provision and the front end remained retail.”

Rocke used his innovation skills to do something new in the meat industry. He became a pioneer in bringing fully cooked refrigerated entrees to retail in the mid-1990s. “We started making products for people by getting into the fully cooked business,” he says. “We were asked to make a fully cooked slice of prime rib. We had been making hams, bacon and sausage, so this was really different for us.”

In the mid-1990s, Rocke decided to innovate and make another transition for his company – to begin making more products for other companies including Honey Baked Ham and Swiss Colony, which led him to make products from Certified Angus Beef.

“We gave birth to the refrigerated entree business, which companies like Hormel and others do now. But they didn’t begin it – it was started by a handful of independent processors who had some imagination, like Bernie Hanson at Flint Hill Foods and us. Then the giants, like Hormel and Tyson, eventually got into the game.”

Because of this shift, he decided to change the name of his company from Rocke’s Meating Haus to RMH Foods.

Rocke believes three factors are critical to the continued success of the meat processing industry – food safety, worker safety, and the strength of industry trade associations.

“We’re continually invited to people’s dinner table day after day and night after night with our products,” he says. “So we have a huge responsibility to make sure our products are safe for people to eat – that’s our basic and most important responsibility. This principle has to drive the practical solution – the principle of prevention of foodborne illness – the inspection has to be built in. And obviously, it’s extremely important for the people who work in this industry to have safe environments where they work.”

As a lifelong executive and major player in the meat processing industry, Rocke believes strongly in the importance and necessity of strong trade associations.

“In this industry, we all start and end together – we all succeed or fail together, not separately. So it’s very important for us all to work together.”

Acting on those beliefs, Rocke served as president of NAMP, and led several initiatives, including chairing the revision of the prestigious NAMP – Meat Buyers Guide.

But he has some concerns about the direction in which the associations overall are going. He doesn’t think the consolidation of the association groups is a good thing. He’s concerned about less involvement in the trade associations, as well as not as much mentor involvement as there used to be. “Trade associations were critical in my career. When there were more associations, more industry interests were represented and dealt with. It’s troubling that fewer of those interests are now being advocated by the groups.”

Rocke also thinks it’s not good that consumers are getting more used to recalls. “It’s almost as if they expect these things to happen; they’re getting numb to them. Well, that’s not good for consumers, and it’s really not good for the industry either,” he says.

Despite all these concerns, he believes overall the meat industry is doing a good job handling the challenges thrown at it. “There’s just a lot more the industry is faced with handling,” he says.

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