When Butterball LLC, an icon in the food industry and the largest turkey producer in the United States, was looking for a new executive to lead the company, the firm carried out a lengthy and extensive search to find the right candidate. Butterball soon found out, however, it was taking the long way around to achieve its goal. The company ended up coming back to its first candidate, who had ranked No. 1 all along – Rod Brenneman.

Brenneman had already been filling in as interim Butterball president and CEO.

Welcoming Brenneman to the helm of the huge turkey producer was Walter Pelletier, president of Maxwell Farms LLC, which shares equal ownership of Butterball with Seaboard Corp. Brenneman had worked at Seaboard since 1989 and had been president and CEO from 2001 until August 2011. In his comments to Brenneman in September of last year, Pelletier said, “Our No. 1 priority is to produce the highest quality of healthy, wholesome turkey products for consumers. Rod will provide instrumental strategic corporate insight to strengthen Butterball’s business operations, while helping the company maintain its commitment to its core goals.”

The company accounts for 20 percent of turkey production in the US, employs 5,000 people in five plants and corporate offices, and includes the 675,000-sq.-ft. plant in Mt. Olive, NC, the world’s largest turkey facility.

Starting strong

In the opinion of those in the industry who know Brenneman from his time at Seaboard and now at Butterball, he is strengthening the company already. He is overseeing all aspects of Butterball’s business strategy and operations. Giving him great marks is Steve Bresky, president and CEO at Seaboard Corp., who says Brenneman has done exceptionally well at developing Seaboard Foods into the business it is today, and that he would be bringing his proven management skills and business expertise to Butterball, which was Seaboard’s most-recent acquisition.

While at Seaboard, he served the company in various financial management capacities, including director of tax and business development. He also became involved in working on many of the company’s joint ventures and acquisitions. In 1994, Brenneman was named vice president of finance and administration at Seaboard Foods, and played a major role in building up the company from its startup to being one of the major hog-production and pork-processing businesses in the US. Two years later, he was named senior vice president for live production, in charge of all live production for the company.

Brenneman serves on a number of boards as a director, including the American Meat Institute, where he is a member of AMI’s executive committee. He has also been chairman of the trade association. When he graduated from college, he worked for Arthur Andersen, but the vast majority of his career has been spent with Seaboard. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been exposed to numerous businesses within the Seaboard family during my time with the company,” he says.

Did Brenneman suspect he might be named president of the country’s biggest turkey producer? A modest man despite his position in the industry, he says, No.

“As a part of my role on Butterball’s board of directors, I was asked to serve alongside another board member as the interim CEO while we performed a nationwide search for a replacement. I had no expectation of becoming Butterball’s new CEO,” he says. “However, after spending some time as interim CEO and learning more about the business and the people, the Butterball board and I came to a mutual agreement that I would be a good fit.”

Butterball’s joint ownership by Seaboard Corp. and Maxwell Farms provide several benefits to Butterball, from the vantage point of a two-pronged ownership approach. In his interview with Meat&Poultry, Brenneman explains the details of the corporate ownership. “First, both owners are aligned in corporate positioning, and see eye-to-eye on company direction, which allows our management teams to lead without worrying about conflicting ownership interests,” he says. “Second, each owner is committed to providing resources and supporting the business to insure Butterball remains the No. 1 brand in the turkey business. Finally, both owners have a long-term approach to business, which lends itself to long-term strategic decisions.”

Sharing his strengths

The Butterball executive is happy to talk about his upside as a business leader, both when he was CEO at Seaboard Foods, and what he’s brought from that experience to Butterball. “My strengths are in building a strong, cohesive team, and in setting and communicating a strategy for the organization,” he says. “My experience and commitment to running Seaboard Foods as an integrated organization is proving to be an asset in leading Butterball,” he points out. “I feel very strongly that making decisions on an integrated basis, as opposed to traditional segmented business evaluations, is very important to maximizing the organization’s potential.”

He describes his leadership style as involved, but empowering. “I strive to set company strategy, provide an overall vision and do my best to lead people. With that said, I also try to get out of the way and encourage personal success in each associate’s area of expertise. My desire is to lead in executing against the strategy, but to allow associates to feel comfortable and productive in achieving goals. I hold people accountable by measuring work and focusing on optimizing throughout the company. If you were to ask people I work with, some might say I am very active…and maybe a little impatient at times.”

Brenneman was also willing to speak about his philosophy and personality and how they work together as he leads the company. “My business philosophy contains the following elements: high integrity throughout the organization, open communication, accountability, and continuous improvement,” he says. He also believes in measuring throughout the organization to help identify and drive continuous improvement. “Communication with associates is important to me. I want everyone to understand where we are heading as an organization, and how we are doing in our journey along the way.”

His accounting background made him valuable to Seaboard Corp., and also got him involved in the meat and poultry business. He was exposed to various businesses within Seaboard early in his career, and when the company decided to move into the food industry with the start of Seaboard Foods, he was involved as part of that team. “That launched my career in the meat and poultry industry,” he says.

In talking about his personal commitments, Brenneman points out worker safety is a top priority of his. In fact, Butterball has earned worker-safety recognition awards from the AMI. “Without great associates, our company could not and would not be successful,” he says. “My desire is to protect our greatest asset – our associates. In addition to the AMI worker-safety award, our Huntsville, Ark., facility recently achieved seven million work hours without a lost-time injury. That’s the kind of success we want to celebrate and build on.”

Caring for community

Community involvement is also very important to Brenneman, who says Butterball is very committed to being a good corporate partner with the communities in which the company operates. “This is not only done by the company itself being involved, but by the associates taking an active individual role as well,” he says, in part because Butterball employees and their families not only work in their communities, but live there, as well.

One example of his interest in community involvement took place last year while he was still at Seaboard. The company received AMI’s Edward C. Jones Community Service Award during the trade association’s 2011 convention in Chicago. The company donated large amounts of money to the Leoti, Kan., school system, to the Oklahoma State Univ. Swine Education and Research Center, to Guymon, Okla., a Seaboard plant community, to build a new YMCA, and to Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity, and the American Cancer Society.

In presenting the award, AMI Chairman Dennis Vignieri, head of Kenosha Beef International, noted Seaboard’s commitment to the community starts at the top. He said Brenneman and his wife, Shelley, have traveled on mission trips with their church where they participated iin community development projects. Closer to home, following a devastating tornado in Greensburg, Kan., that destroyed the town’s high school just before graduation, the Brennemans traveled to Greensburg where their team had towed a cooker and served pork burgers and pork loins for the school’s graduation celebration.

These concerns about the community have continued since Brenneman came to Butterball. In the spring, the company joined the Poultry Federation, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and the Arkansas Foodbank to donate 6,500 lbs. of turkey products to support the No Kid Hungry Arkansas Campaign as part of a national effort to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. “Butterball is committed to partnering with charitable groups throughout its plant communities to provide hunger relief and support the local community as we strive to serve as a strong corporate citizen,” Brenneman says.

Brenneman’s upbringing and moral training also taught him lessons he is using at Butterball to make it a better company for fellow employees, executives and consumers. Does morality play a role in how he runs the company? “I was raised in a small town and brought up in the Mennonite Church, so my Christian faith is important to me,” he answers. “I was taught the value of hard work and I feel very strongly that integrity is the key to success in any business. I hope I model these values in how I run the company and in the decisions I make.”

Brenneman knows that no matter how successful a business is, challenges exist. “Clearly, the grain-price impact of ethanol is one of the biggest issues facing the protein industry,” he says. “Beyond that, Butterball strives for continuous improvement in the areas of food safety, animal care and well-being, and delivering innovative products that our customers and consumers desire and deserve.”

How important is food safety? “Food safety is paramount to all customers and consumers, and we are committed to delivering the safest, highest-quality products for them to enjoy,” he says. “This will continue to be a key area of focus for our company.”

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.