Some meat and poultry executives learn about the intracacies of the processing business in college classrooms and by learning on the job. But that’s not the case with Butterball LLC’s Kerry Doughty.
Last May, Doughty was named CEO and president of Butterball, the world’s largest turkey producer. For this 61-year-old executive, working in the industry was a way of life for as long as he can remember.
“I grew up in the meat business,” he says. “I’ve been in the meat industry, going back to my teens.”
At the helm of Butterball, Doughty is responsible for leading the business strategy of the company that has become synonomous with turkey, not only during the holidays but year ‘round. Before becoming the company’s leader, Doughty was executive vice president of sales, marketing, research and development. In that role, he was responsible for Butterball’s domestic and international retail and foodservice customer relationships. He also oversaw all the company’s marketing and public relations initiatives and efforts. He also led the company’s innovation efforts and new product developments.
Doughty joined Butterball seven years ago. Before that, he worked for more than 25 years in brand and sales development. His experience includes a large number of senior leadership positions for various companies in the food, meat and poultry industry. He has served in leadership positions with Perdue Farms Inc., FFM/Hardees, Loveland Foods, Kretchmar, and Wilson Foods. Doughty attended Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis.
Doughty comes from a large family. “I started working in a meat plant when I was in high school, during the summers,” he says. Doughty’s father was in the meat business, working for Stark & Wetzel Meats in Indianapolis, where Doughty grew up. “My dad, Richard, started with them as a chauffeur, and he also worked in the beef slaughtering area. He stayed with the company his entire career, and 37 years later he was the company controller.
“That’s something that doesn’t happen anymore,” Doughty says with a laugh. “People move around today to different companies, no matter what industry you’re talking about. There’s a lot more noise today in careers. That’s just the way it is.”
The Butterball executive is happy to talk about his business philosophy. “I listen to customers – and to consumers.” He explains the difference in the expectations of each. “Our customers are largely the retailers we sell our products to. The consumers are the people who buy our products from our retailer customers. I ask people how we’re doing. It’s very important for us to be extremely customer-focused. Our customers, our associates and our growers are most important.”
Doughty is quick to boast about his experienced leadership team. “They all came in over the last seven or eight years,” he says. “They’ve come from other places, other companies. And they’ve all had good experiences at other companies. That’s what we’re looking for. There was a positive and smooth transition here primarily because of the existing team that was already here. So, we all work together functionally and cross functionally.”
A willing workhorse
Butterball’s CEO and president isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, either. “In my whole career, I wasn’t always the smartest guy in the class. But I could outwork everyone. And my management team is the same way. Regardless of how early I get here, I can’t get one of the best parking spots in the lot because they’re already taken,” he laughs. “And we all also understand the vision of the company – making safe, high-quality products at a reasonable price.”
He believes his upbringing by his family has a lot to do with how he conducts his life – whether professional or other aspects. “I’m from the Midwest, the oldest of six kids. I had paper routes and jobs throughout high school. I knew I would always have to work hard, no matter what I did,” he says.
Doughty came up in the industry the long way, eventually working for Fast Food Merchandising, which was part of Hardee’s. “Hardee’s was like a three-legged stool – we had retail, distribution to restaurants for foodservice and regular distribution,” Doughty says. In 1998, the manufacturing division of Hardee’s was bought by Perdue. Doughty worked at Perdue for 10 years, running the foodservice division. In a way, it’s not surprising at all that he eventually moved to Butterball.
“A lot of people who worked at Perdue came to Butterball,” he says. Seven years ago, Doughty, at Perdue at the time, was offered the executive vice president of sales position at Butterball. Since then, the ownership of the company reorganized. Seaboard became one of the company owners, and Rod Brenneman took over as president and CEO of Butterball. “Rod mentored me and put the executive committee together at the company,” Doughty notes.
Running a company as big as Butterball poses great challenges and Doughty is grateful for all the help he gets. “I have 6,000 associates companywide. I think the secret to the success in our company is having a ‘people style,’” he says. “I like to associate with people, and working with other people, especially my leadership and management team, is the reason a company like ours can succeed. My Dad really taught me everything I know about management – ‘work hard and treat people like you want to be treated yourself’, he would say.”
Doughty is proud to talk about his family, his background and how he came up in business. “My Dad passed away nine years ago, and he was my biggest hero,” he says. “But I’m not from high finance. I depend a lot on my management team, we all work hard, and it is a real team effort. There are no castles or private sideshows at Butterball. It’s all of us in this together and working together.”
He points to several areas that are most important to him and Butterball. “Food safety – food safety is paramount. That’s the most important thing we have. If our food isn’t safe, and we’re not making sure it’s safe, we really have nothing at all. Then there’s associate safety – the safety of our employees. We rely very much on input from our employees about plant safety or any problems,” he says.
The immigration problem in the United States is also a big concern to Doughty, as well as to other companies in the poultry and meat industry. And animal care and well-being are critical. “We need to take care of our animals,” he says. “Our company leads the way in animal well-being. We do this by training and retraining our associates, and they’re accountable for the well-being of the birds. The birds are ethically raised for there’s no tolerance for mistreatment of our birds. There’s a lot of noise in this area right now, especially from the animal-welfare groups. But we’re the people on the line. We’re in the middle, and we want to treat our animals humanely and right.”
Labor is a big issue, as well. “We’re completely dependent on labor – to get enough labor, associates, to do what we need to do in order to succeed as a company,” he adds. “What we really need as far as immigration is concerned is clarification and consistency from the government in its immigration policy. Unfortunately, it’s been turned into a political process. There is a real need for immigration reform. The main thing is, we need to know how things will work, on a consistent basis, without changes all the time.”
Doughty doesn’t think the increasing emphasis on local agriculture threatens large companies like his or others. “We have plants in several areas of the country,” he says. “But the main thing is, 98 percent of our production comes from family farmers. That’s the way it is at Butterball and in the industry as a whole. And that’s the way we want it to be.”
Since Doughty has been at Butterball, the turkey business has changed drastically, moving from what was a whole-bird based operation to more in the way of turkey products. The company produces about 1.3 billion lbs. of turkey, about 20 percent, of the American market. “We raise whole birds for holiday retail, which average about 16 lbs. per bird, with production of 22 million a year. “We also produce meat birds, which average between 45 and 47 lbs.,” he says. “They’re deboned for further processing. Sixteen-million of those are produced in a year.”
Large numbers of turkeys are produced at Christmas, as well, which amounts to about 10 to 15 percent of the yearly production. And while hams are probably the favorite for Easter, Doughty says there are a lot fresh turkeys consumed during the Easter holiday.
“But the big change is the huge growth in turkey production and consumption all year round, as opposed to the holidays,” Doughty points out. “Turkey has really become an everyday product.”
He says ground turkey, turkey bacon, turkey sausage, turkey burgers and turkey lunch meat have exploded in growth. “They’re hot,” he says. Turkey bacon has been growing between 5 and 6 percent a year. “There’s such a growth in bacon period, and bacon is in everything now – there’s even dessert bacon,” he says laughing. “Just in the bacon, we’re seeing strong double-digit increases. It’s the taste, health and nutrition,” he notes. “We’re seeing a 12 percent annual growth in turkey sausage.”
Doughty says the ground beef supply is limited and expensive. However, turkey is 100 percent interchangeable with beef across all menu items. He estimates 30 percent of the American population buys 70 percent of turkey products. For many people, turkey is on their menus five or six days a week. On the burger front, Doughty says burgers have to taste really good in order to sell. The growth in turkey burgers are 15 to 20 percent ahead of last year’s figures.
“These figures show how the turkey industry has changed in recent years,” Doughty says. “In our business, whole birds are 25 percent. Value-added turkey products are 50 percent of our sales. And other turkey products make up the other 25 percent. On the holiday side, most of our production, which is frozen, has been fairly flat. The fresh side is where the growth is. In fact, our fresh production is growing in double digits. This happens because fresh eliminates thawing, which our Butterball Turkey Talk Line explains so people know how to do it safely.”
Has Doughty ever “worked” the Butterball Turkey Talk Line? “They won’t let me answer the Turkey Talk Line, although I’d like to,” he muses. “But I have talked to our associates who are working the Turkey Talk Line and they do a wonderful job.”
He also points to the changes in families and how they cook and eat together that affect the turkey and other meat and poultry industries. “That makes turkey parts much easier to work with on an everyday basis,” he says.
Doughty also wants to talk about how automation is affecting the turkey industry, particularly Butterball. “Automation is becoming more important because of the lack of consistent labor due to the immigration situation. So, we’re always looking for ways to automate. And we’ve done a few things,” he says. “They include, first, automatic deboning. Of course, there’s always been hand deboning. Auto deboning also gives us a consistent product. Then there is a controlled-atmosphere stunning system in a large processing facility. One of the main advantages of controlled-atmosphere stunning is it makes working conditions much safer for our associates. And it eliminates the stress on our birds.