'Team' Champ

by Bryan Salvage
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Those who know or work with Kenneth (Ken) Rutledge, president and CEO of Dakota Provisions, Huron, S.D., can attest he has vast industry experience and knowledge, a strong work ethic, a great sense of humor and he nurtures team spirit at the relatively new and growing business he leads.

“I consider it a privilege to be president and CEO of a company such as Dakota Provisions,” he says. “It was a lifelong dream of mine to participate in building a new production facility from the ground up.”

Opening for business in December 2005, Dakota Provision’s $120 million, 150,000-sq.-ft. plant is the result of a grassroots effort of 44 turkey growers throughout the Midwest and has since evolved into a world-class processing facility that produces 220 million lbs. of product per year. The company’s processing plant was designed with food safety and technological innovation in mind.

Located on a 114-acre site east of Huron, S.D., the plant slaughters, debones and cooks turkeys and has the capacity for 10 million live turkeys per year. It also produces a complete line of fully cooked turkey, pork, beef and chicken products. In addition to being a processing facility, the complex houses corporate offices, dedicated research and quality assurance laboratories and kitchens to continually test, develop and monitor products. All products are geared toward foodservice, co-manufacturing and niche markets.

When it first opened, the plant employed more than 300 workers. Today, it employs more than 700.

Last year, Dakota Provisions experienced its best year to date, Rutledge says, because:

• Dakota Provision’s focus was on cost control of its production facility. “We are continually rated as a low-cost producer in comparatives for the industry,” Rutledge says.

• Market prices helped the company in 2010.

• The processor has a diverse workforce led by a dedicated group of managers.

• Dakota Provisions has a strong and supportive board of directors, board chairman and executive committee all committed to its success.

• The company also has a strong, supportive grower ownership group composed of the Hutterite Colonies, which are known for their high quality of production.

• Dakota Provisions has developed some unique relationships with material suppliers and warehousing and distribution companies, which allows it to be more competitive.

• The plant has received very high ratings on customer audits due to its facility design and commitment to quality and food safety.

• Embracing the sustainability movement, Dakota Provisions employs an on-staff, green/sustainability manager. Focus is on water and power usage.

• Dakota Provisions’ ready-to-eat volumes have increased steadily over the past five years and it is producing quality product for “several well-known and highly respected customers. “This build-up of RTE volume certainly took longer than Dakota Provisions anticipated and thus is one disappointment for us,” Rutledge admits.

Illustrious career
Spanning almost 40 years, Rutledge’s poultry-industry career personifies commitment and excellence. He cut his teeth in the industry as assistant plant manager of the Swift & Company Butterball whole-bird facility in Jasper, Ind., a post he held from 1973 to 1976. He was later appointed assistant to Swift & Co.’s vice president in Chicago from 1976 to 1977; manager of the Jasper plant from 1977 to 1979; Swift’s director of operations in Chicago from 1979 to 1981; manager of Swift’s Marshall, Minn., plant in 1981 and 1982; and Swift’s corporate vice president of operations from 1982 to 1983.

From 1983 to 1989, Rutledge was president/general manager of Norbest in Salt Lake City; vice president of operations for Swift-Eckrich in Chicago from 1989 to 1991; vice president of operations for Zacky Farms in Fresno, Calif., from 1991 to 1996; president and CEO of West Liberty Foods, West Liberty, Iowa, from 1996 to 2004; and then to his current position of president and CEO of Dakota Provisions, which he has held since 2004.

Despite his hectic schedule over the years, Rutledge has always taken time to “give back” to the industry. He is a past member and officer of the Indiana State Poultry Association; a past member of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, Utah Turkey Growers Association and Pacific Egg & Poultry Association; past board member of the Iowa Turkey Federation; past member and president of the California Poultry Industry Federation; a past member of President Ronald Reagan’s National Meat and Poultry Advisory Committee; and a past board member, executive committee member and 1995 chairman of the National Turkey Federation.

Rutledge is currently a member of the South Dakota Poultry Industry Association; board member and vice president of the Huron Chamber of Commerce; and a board member and vice president of the Huron Country Club.

‘Hire the best’
When asked to define his leadership style, Rutledge says, “I strongly believe in hiring the best people and allowing them to handle their own area of responsibility while keeping an eye on impact to our team.”

Rutledge names several industry veterans he admires, including John Wickliffe, Swift vice president, for his work ethic and ability to train; Swift vice president Del Smith, for his care and concern for other people; and John McDade, president of Norbest, for his personality plus sharp memory for faces and names.

When it come to companies he admires the most, Rutledge mentions Jennie-O Foods for its focus on cost control and Foster Farms for its focus on knowing their customer base.

Rutledge cites one pet peeve he has in business. “My biggest pet peeve is an individual who finds fault without suggesting a resolution,” he admits.

Every CEO addresses business challenges in their own unique way. “Every business challenge has different drivers,” Rutledge points out. “The most productive outcomes occur when all parties can jointly communicate and arrive at a decision,” he adds.

Making critically important business decisions at Dakota Provisions requires a team effort. “At Dakota Provisions, we are a team and we make our decisions as a team,” he iterates. “However, there has to be an ultimate arbiter and that’s me.”

Biggest business challenge
Even the biggest processing companies led by the industry’s brightest minds face challenges, says Rutledge. Many stem from struggling to comply with regulations that are too often not based on sound science. “The government always means well, but it continues to present ill-timed legislation or often edicts to industry,” he says. “We are becoming a nation of unscientific rules and regulations, based more on emotion than science.”

Trying to build a business based on exporting to other countries presents great risk, but the US must continue to pursue this business outlet, he insists. “Government should let the free-market system work,” he adds. “Remove government subsidies, which cause unfair advantages to certain groups.”

On a lighter note, Rutledge shares what he enjoys doing in what little free time he has: “I am an avid pheasant hunter, I enjoy deer hunting…and I attempt to play golf.”

Looking to 2011, Rutledge says this year is setting up to be another strong year for Dakota Provisions. But it will also present challenges. “Grain prices will certainly impact the cost of production,” he says. “Government edicts will continue to be a cost-driver.”

Customers will continue to look for economical prices with a continuing focus on those companies that deliver safe food production, address consumer concerns such as animal handling, utilize controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS)-type systems in their facilities and make use of the latest technology, “i.e., video monitoring to insure requirements are being met,” he adds.

Looking back over his career, Rutledge says, “I have found reason to enjoy each and every one of those positions and locations.” Through it all, he attributes his successful career to the people he works with. “One of my favorite slogans is, ‘There is no ‘I’ in team. There is a ‘U’ but no ‘I’ in success.”
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