Steadying hand

by Joel Crews
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 Mike
About 10 years after he joined the company, Townsley followed Bob Evans Farms when the company moved its headquarters to New Albany, Ohio, from Columbus. 
 
Just like the successful professional golfers he has enjoyed following for years, Mike Townsley has dedicated much of his life to mastering his trade. Along the way he has discovered how attributes like humility, sacrifice, learning, adapting and commitment are as important to succeeding in the meat industry as they are on the PGA tour.

Since joining Bob Evans Foods in 2003, Townsley has seen his share of changes, not only within the company, but in his professional role and in the constantly evolving industry. Prior to accepting the position of president and COO at Bob Evans’ independent operating company, Owens Country Sausage, he spent decades working for some of the highest-profile meat companies along with some of the industry’s most-iconic leaders, including Bob Peterson at IBP, Joe Luter III at Smithfield and his longtime colleague, Bo Manly.

Townsley has thrived in roles ranging from sales management at IBP, Premium Standard Farms and Smithfield Foods to his current position as president of BEF Foods, the food production division of Bob Evans Farms, which produces sausage links, patties and chubs, as well as convenience foods and side dishes for retail customers and for the company’s 525-plus restaurants. In the past decade, the company operated as many as nine pork-processing plants, five of which were slaughtering facilities. That number has been whittled down to two harvesting and two processing plants.

He’s had a front-row seat as Bob Evans has faced many challenges, including the consolidation of processing plants and the closure of scores of restaurants. More recently he’s seen a heated proxy battle, the hiring and departure of two CEOs, the approval and construction of a stunning new $47 million headquarters and moving the company’s base from Columbus to New Albany, Ohio, in 2013. Along the way, Townsley moved up the ranks and was appointed president of BEF Foods Inc. in 2008. He also served as co-CEO of Bob Evans for nearly a year, starting in late 2014.

Prior to 2003, “I had never held any general management positions,” Townsley says, “but you don’t spend 11 years at IBP and not have a pretty good understanding of the importance of operational excellence.”

An eye for excellence

Evidence of his understanding of operations is perhaps most evident at the fresh pork plants he is charged with overseeing in Hillsdale, Michigan, and Xenia, Ohio, the latter of which is about 80 miles southwest of Bob Evans’ HQ. “These two facilities produce what we produced at five [plants] at one time,” Townsley says. “Our cost structure is much improved from what it once was.”

The consolidation required improvement in the process and in the equipment to support the process, he adds. Previous to the improvements, the rate of kill could too easily overrun the processing procedures, which meant slower chain speeds. To take the chain speed to the next level, plans are in the works to renovate the live-animal handling area and kill floor within the next two years.

Built in the early 1960s, the Xenia harvesting and processing plant was the second fresh sausage processing plant in the Bob Evans system in a city long remembered as ground zero for a devastating tornado in 1974 as well as a reputation for being a manufacturing hub. It has been expanded significantly twice through the years with another renovation being planned for the next 12-18 months. The throughput of the facility, Townsley says, “is pretty phenomenal,” with a capacity of approximately 500 head per day. Approximately 100 workers are employed at the 77,000-sq.-ft. plant. Nearly mirror images in terms of operations, the plants in Xenia and Hillsdale are the only surviving pork-processing operations since the closure of six other facilities, the last of which was its Richardson, Texas, plant shuttered in 2013. The Xenia facility’s production is primarily focused on 1-lb. rolls and link sausage for retail, as well as Bob Evans restaurants. The plants both make whole-hog, pre-rigor combo meat that is used in house for production requirements, and some shipped to Bob Evans’ Sulpher Springs, Texas, plant for production of precooked links, patties and in meat used to make its sausage gravy. The Xenia plant operates three link lines, two of which have been largely automated over the course of the past three years. Earlier this year, two lines were integrated to offer flexibility in what is known as Line 2, with the consolidation being based on the investment in a tray loading system.

Bob Evans  
Pre-rigor pork is utilized to manufacture links and chub sausage products at the Bob Evans plant in Xenia, Ohio, when capacity is up to 500 sows per day. 
 

“The biggest upgrade would be the link-loading capabilities. It just makes a very good-looking link that’s put into the tray,” Aaron Eskridge, plant manager, says with pride. “It’s like my second child,” he says with a smile. The automated technology means that as few as 5 percent of the links have to be handled by human hands to situate them in trays. The end of the line is equipped with a robotic picker, which further automates the process.

The exact same link products are run on two different lines, (one for foodservice and one for retail) and the difference in appearance is apparent most notably in the uniformity of the automated line’s packaged product.

Overall, though, “The quality of our links today vs. what they were 10 years ago is night and day,” Townsley says.

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