The recipient of MEAT+POULTRY's Operations Executive of the Year Paul Kafer got a caffeinated start to his current role with the pork processing company.
It’s understandable that Paul Kafer might be somewhat of a coffee snob. While today Kafer is an accomplished and respected engineer in the meat processing industry, he began earning his manufacturing and operational chops about 40 years ago, working with an iconic coffee manufacturer in the Northeast. There, he spent years learning the science behind roasting coffee beans and implemented a process for streamlining the process for General Foods’ Maxwell House Coffee brand.

Kafer, the vice president of engineering for Smithfield Foods and the recipient of MEAT+POULTRY’s Operations Executive of the Year award for 2017, recounted his eventful career path with M+P Editor, Joel Crews in late May. The diverse roles in food and beverage industries Kafer has worked in have proven to serve him well as a big-picture thinker years later. After delving into the meat industry as a plant manager at North Side Foods Corp. in 1997 and since 1998 with Smithfield, the lessons he learned from his previous jobs still serve him well.

“I was always fascinated with chemistry,” recalled Kafer, thinking back to his childhood where he grew up north of New York City, in Westchester County. Just before graduating from high school and just after he scored a 100 on the state Regents test, Kafer’s guidance counselor told him: “You probably should look at chemical engineering,” which turned out to be sage advice. Kafer earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Clarkson Univ. and later earned an MBA in industrial management from Fairleigh Dickinson Univ.

But early on, as a very green process engineer at the coffee-roasting operation, Kafer learned a lesson he still applies today after succeeding in his first project assignment.

“You really have to invest yourself if you want to solve a problem, which means getting the right data; get all the facts; take all the measurements,” he said. “Yes, it takes time but that’s how you achieve success.”

He said in his role, the next step after learning processes is implementing new ideas to improve them and then comes the critical step of teaching new systems to others.

After about eight years at General Foods, Kafer went to work for a snack-food manufacturer and then a gourmet retailer in a variety of roles that expanded his base of knowledge beyond engineering.

“It was great for me because it gave me exposure to retail, to marketing, to a lot of things that engineering and operations people normally don’t get to experience firsthand,” Kafer said.

When he joined North Side, which was acquired by Smithfield in 1998, Kafer was advocating automation as a means of streamlining operations at two plants, but was soon assigned to help lead the building of what was then, Smithfield’s new Kinston, North Carolina plant.

Since then, Kafer played a key role in leading the construction of an American style pork processing plant in Zhengzhou, China, a two-and-a-half year project involving Smithfield’s US engineering team working alongside Shuanghui Development, which opened in late 2015.

While Kafer considers that project a crowning achievement for his team, his vision is for even greater advances in the future. He’s now focused on working with the industry and its suppliers to implement the next generation of technologies, including in-plant automation and augmented reality.

His approach to the next big thing is still to look first at all of the possibilities.

“Sometimes you have to look at the unrealistic to know what is realistic,” he said.

To read more about MEAT+POULTRY’s Operations Executive of the Year, look for the cover story in the July issue, which will soon be available in digital and print formats.