The consummate coach

by Joel Crews
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Bill Buckner, Cargill
Born in Ontario, Canada, Bill Buckner spent the majority of his career overseeing and leading operations at Cargill. After 28 years with the company, Buckner will retire in 2015.

As a kid growing up in rural southern Ontario, Bill Buckner enjoyed the Canadian winters. Living amongst 100-acre farms, alongside neighbors with kids about his age, a nearby pond, frozen solid by months of sub-zero temperatures served as a rink of dreams for Buckner and his hockey-loving buddies. Summers saw the same kids playing baseball on pasture-based fields of dreams. Fifty-plus years later, Buckner still enjoys hockey, and looks forward to spending more time competing on the ice. And he will, after retiring from Cargill later this year, where he serves as one of five members of the company’s leadership team (CLT), capping a 28 year career there. From the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak of 1993, to the discovery of BSE in the US in 2003, to the more recent “pink slime” debacle, Buckner has seen his share of challenges face the beef industry during his tenure. He’s also been a key player in the growth, and many acquisitions and joint ventures, that helped make Cargill a global force in the meat industry, and beyond. On a chilly winter day last December, Buckner shared some of the highlights and challenges of his career from his Cargill office in Minnesota.

Growing up with two brothers, one a twin and the other older, Buckner was like most kids raised in the many rural parts of Canada, embracing an agricultural lifestyle based on hard work, family loyalty and the stability of good friends. But even as a kid, Buckner was looking for ways to earn a little money for doing some work, which he didn’t mind at all. Nearby orchards provided an early opportunity. “There was quick money to be made by picking fruit,” Buckner recalls.

While his father worked for 35 years at Robin Hood Multifoods Corporation driving a truck, Buckner learned the finer points of chores and jobs most kids his age were expected to do, instilling a work ethic that would serve him well in the future.

“I learned how to pitchfork out a barnyard that had six years of manure in it five-feet deep” in addition to other chores that are foreign to today’s city-dwelling kids, like spending entire days loading bales in the haymow.

Buckner’s career in agriculture kicked off at the age of 15. With his dad as a reference, he landed a summer job in the flour mill at Robin Hood, which was his first exposure to “industrialized, unionized labor.” This provided a glimpse into the complexities of big business. Buckner never pictured himself as a city slicker and remembers vowing in high school to never live in a metropolis, an aspiration that would dwindle in the years to come. After high school, he attended McMaster Univ. in Hamilton, Ontario, where he earned a commerce degree in 1977, having studied general management accounting and human resources.

A born entrepreneur, Buckner learned plenty about business in the classroom but also found an opportunity to apply what he was being taught. Capitalizing on the ambition of some cash-hungry fellow students, Buckner’s business delivered flour bags off the back of Robin Hood Multifoods trucks to nearby bakeries, donut shops and pizzerias where union rules prohibited drivers from entering the businesses.

Canada Packers Maple Leaf truck
After college, Buckner went to work at Canada Packers Maple Leaf in Toronto as part of its university management recruiting program.

“I set up a little firm to provide labor to unload these trucks in southern Ontario.” After completing his studies, Buckner went to work with Canada Packers Maple Leaf in Toronto, the largest food processing company in Canada’s largest city, as part of its university management recruiting program, with plans of starting out in transportation logistics. On his first day on the job, however, HR director Art Devlin asked Buckner to come work in his department. “I spent the first two-and-a-half years of my professional life learning everything about people,” Buckner says. After learning all aspects of what was then known as “labor relations,” Buckner was anxious to work in the business side of the company, “to be responsible for the P&L.”

During an era when his contemporaries at Maple Leaf were drawn toward the company’s marketing and consumer products segments, Buckner kept his ears open for opportunities that weren’t as popular with his colleagues. Soon he heard there was an opening for a manager in a newly created position with the company’s beef department in the fresh meats business. “I ran a new department called ‘boxed beef,’” beginning in 1979, at a time when boxed beef was a novelty in Canada.

In 1983 he had the opportunity to be a plant manager at one of the Canada Packers plants in western Canada. “We processed 600 cattle per day,” he says. “We thought that was a lot back then.” His next stint saw him go back to Toronto to work, ultimately earning the position of national sales and marketing manager for beef.

Cargill calling

“In the summer of 1987 my phone rang and it was Cargill, and they asked if I’d be interested in possibly building a beef business in Canada,” says Buckner, who accepted the challenge and the job about a month later. He loaded his wife, three kids and the family dog into an old station wagon and made the long drive from Canada to Cargill’s meat business headquarters in Wichita, Kan., relocating to a much flatter environment in America’s heartland. After nine months of training in the plains, Buckner moved north again, to Calgary, Alberta in 1988, to join a start-up team that was planning to build Cargill’s first beef plant in Canada, known now as High River, in Alberta province. Working on getting that plant up and running is a project Buckner considers a career feather in his cap. Pointing out the plant turned 25 years old this past June, Buckner is proud to have been a part of that Greenfield project and being involved in “starting a business from scratch,” he says. The construction of High River included an innovative wastewater treatment solution (Frank Lake) that Buckner helped spearhead, another accomplishment he is proud to have been part of developing.

Bill Buckner at Cargill event
Buckner loaded his wife, three kids and the family dog into an old station wagon and made the long drive from Canada to Cargill’s meat business headquarters in Wichita, Kan..

“We built the plant to do 1,200 cattle per day on a single shift,” he says, and after many expansions and more than two decades, the plant operates running two shifts per day, processing 4,500 head per day with more than 2,000 employees and more than $2 billion in annual sales. “I’d call it the leading beef processing business in Canada,” he says.

Buckner would return to Wichita in 1994 to help lead what was then known as Excel Corporation, and he was named president of Cargill Meat Solutions in 1998. In 2000, he was appointed corporate vice president of Cargill and senior vice president in 2007 and he continues to serve as one of five members of the company’s leadership team in Minneapolis. Since then, “I’ve been responsible for providing coaching to a number of parts of Cargill, but my primary direct responsibilities have been our animal protein and salt businesses.”

Having spent nearly four decades in the meat business, Buckner will call it a career later this year. “From growing up in a farming area in Canada to being able to do what I’ve done for the past 38 years, has truly been amazing.”

What Buckner will remember most fondly about his career are the people he worked with during the past 38 years and the customers he’s served during that time. While working in Cargill’s meat business, Buckner worked alongside talented Cargill meat business leaders including Bill Fielding, Lanny Binger, Tom Hayes, Bill Rupp, Steve Mellinger, Brian Derksen, John Keating and Mike Robach, as well as too many others to mention. At least one of the more memorable colleagues who didn’t work at Cargill, but continues to make a huge impact in the industry is Colorado State Univ.’s Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science, a contributing editor to MEAT+POULTRY for decades and the world’s foremost authority on animal welfare.

Orchestrating acquisitions

“I was a part of a lot of acquisitions over the years and other businesses that we grew,” Buckner says, including developing Cargill’s Case-Ready business and working with the company’s first large Canadian retail customer for that business, Loblaws. He was the strategic leader in Cargill’s acquisition of Taylor Packing in 2002; the Better Beef Guelph acquisition in 2005; the Emmpak Foods buyout in 2001; and has been integral in Cargill’s Australian operations for the past 25 years. He initiated Cargill’s joint venture in Argentina Beef that was formed in 2003 and then sold in 2012; he facilitated the joint venture agreement with Teys in 2010; the DOS joint venture in 2005 with Standard Meats which still provides steaks to Bloomin’ Brands Outback; helped put together the highly successful joint venture with Advanced Foods known as Advanced Brands; initiated the joint venture with Hormel (Precept), which was successful, but had completed its task and was dissolved in late 2014.

 

Bill Buckner at meat plant
Buckner spend the first years of his career learning about people.

Buckner was also part of some unsuccessful acquisition attempts, which served to enrich his career as well, due to the knowledge and experience gained. “I was the one sitting at the other side of the table at the Sunday auction of Farmland Foods,” he says, referring to the bidding battle for the financially challenged pork company that was ultimately won by Smithfield Foods in 2003.

Through it all, Buckner says he is an optimist who looks for opportunities and loves to work with others who share his belief and passion for work. “It’s about creating high-performance teams and coaching them and empowering them and giving them the opportunity to create magic,” he says. He considers himself a servant leader with a mission of serving his team, their customers, supplier companies and even communities. He also tried to assemble teams comprised of people with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Buckner says, “I understand the industry pretty well but, because I consider learning an ongoing journey, I’ve always asked my share of questions.

“Once we decide to do something I say ‘let’s get out of the way and let the players play,’” Buckner says.

Looking back at the early days of his career, working in HR with his first employer, Buckner learned the difference between good leaders and bad leaders. “And then, I was able to go out and practice that for 30-plus years.” He admits he’s made his share of mistakes. “But if you’re not willing to try new things and take risks, you’ll never be successful and grow as a business.”

Food safety matters

Buckner is thankful that he worked with two great companies during his career that put food safety first. “They wanted to be leaders in food safety,” he says. “It wasn’t just talk.” Several years after beginning his career at Cargill, the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak occurred, which served as a wake-up call for the entire beef industry. This gave Buckner the opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with food safety experts like Dell Allen, Angie Siemens and Mike Robach, and a company that was collectively committed to finding solutions. Buckner is thankful that Cargill continually researches new interventions that reduce the risk and possibility of foodborne illnesses. “I got to learn a lot more about E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria than I ever thought I would.” During his tenure, Cargill adopted cabinet washes, VeriFye and other interventions, making it a point of sharing its food safety technologies with the rest of the industry. “I feel very proud of the journey that the entire industry and Cargill has made in the past 25 years,” says Buckner who has chaired Cargill’s Food Safety Risk Committee for the past several years. He’s a believer that food safety should never be a competitive issue. He’s proud of many of the advances Cargill has made in test-and-hold practices for certain products; pilot testing that the company has done on the live cattle side of the business and in processing plants.

Buckner served as president of the Canadian Meat Council in 1997 and chairman of the American Meat Institute in 2005, just two years after the BSE case was discovered in the US. The relationships formed during these times are coveted and it was during that time when he, and others he served with on the board, saw the value for the industry in speaking with one voice. The recent consolidation of two major industry trade groups is something he is proud to see occur as he winds down his career.

“Bill Buckner has been a dedicated and longstanding industry leader,” says Barry Carpenter, who now leads that consolidated trade group – the North American Meat Institute – as president and CEO. “In particular, he was instrumental in leading the merger committee that ultimately created the North American Meat Institute. His vision and hard work on this committee has helped to create a bigger, stronger and more effective voice for our industry,” Carpenter says.

Buckner says the people he’s spent a career getting to know and work with has been humbling and very rewarding. “There’s a long list of folks who I’ve been so blessed to have spend time in my life.”

A smooth transition

Bill Buckner
"If you're not willing to try new things and take risks, you'll never be successful and grow," Buckner says.

Officially, Buckner’s final day will be Aug. 31, but he says he would advise and assist during the transition. By the end of December he had already handed off his animal protein responsibilities. By the end of February his involvement with the salt and deicing business will be handed off. His longtime relationships with many global customers will be handed off over the next several months. “I’m not having to take one cold shower,” he says. “I’m able to do it step by step, which is very nice.”

Looking forward, “I’m going to spend more time on my schedule instead of someone else’s,” he says, with plans to spend more time with friends and family. But spending his retirement days in a rocking chair isn’t in the plan. To the contrary – the 61-year-old plans to enjoy more of the outdoor activities he loves, including playing hockey, extreme snow skiing, scuba diving, golfing and hiking. He also is committed to staying involved in business consulting and serving on the boards of several companies. “I plan on keeping my mind active and my body active,” Buckner says.

“I think 38 years has been a pretty good run at this professional stage of my life.” Buckner encourages everyone to live their life everyday applying his motto: “It doesn’t hurt to smile.”

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