KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Robert “Bo” Manly was just out of grad school and working at his first career job for a large agricultural conglomerate, the first rung of a career that eventually took him to the executive suite at Smithfield Foods, to the president’s office at Premium Standard Farms, and to the chairmanship of what was then the American Meat Institute. On that first job, however, he found himself dressed in an apron and rubber gloves, standing at a stainless steel table in a noisy slaughterhouse, checking for insect grubs in beef weasands.
“Here I was, a graduate of Harvard Business School, and I’m up to my elbows in weasands,” he laughs now at the memory. “I kept thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ ”
Years later, when he attended reunions of his Harvard classmates after he had become executive vice president and chief synergy officer at Smithfield, Manly enjoyed responding to questions about what he was doing. “I’m a pig farmer,” he’d say. When the questioner’s eyebrows inevitably shot up, he would add, “A really big pig farmer.”
In February of this year, Manly retired from his long career in meat, which dates back to 1977 and that weasand table. From the humble beginning, Manly helped guide some of the most significant developments in the industry in recent decades, distinguishing himself as one of the first of a new kind of industry executive: well-educated, worldly and open to good business ideas from far outside the sometimes cloistered world of meat.
Manly’s first couple of decades in the industry brought him close to some of the old-time, rough-and-tumble meat chiefs who still ran the business in the 1980s and ‘90s. And while he’s proud of the way the industry has developed in recent years, he laments that with the disappearance of people such as Bob Peterson of IBP, Ken Monfort of Monfort Foods and Joe Luter at Smithfield, the industry has probably lost forever the kind of executive who learned and best understood the industry’s hardest, toughest lessons.
“What I learned from Bob Peterson was how much details count,” he says. “He believed, and he proved it at IBP, that everything would work out if you kept your eye on all the little things, from the cost of labor to the cost of packaging to the cost of electricity to run the plant.”
Read more about the remarkable career of Bo Manly in an exclusive feature that will be published in the June issue of MEAT+POULTRY, available online and in print next month.