Fifty-eight-year-old Larry Odom is the third generation of his family to run Odom’s Tennessee Pride Sausage Inc., a medium-sized country sausage maker in Madison, Tenn. This year, he is also vice chairman of the American Meat Institute, and in the fall, will be chairman of AMI.

Odom’s life almost didn’t turn out this way at all. At age 15, he started flying as a hobby, and soon decided on his career – he was going to be a pilot. After graduating from high school, he went to college at Middle Tennessee State Univ., and earned his undergraduate degree in aerospace administration. Middle Tennessee was one of only four colleges in the United States offering the degree. “There are two things you can do with an aerospace administration degree,” Odom says with a laugh. “You can be a pilot or you can manage an airport.”

Changing gears

But Odom had been doing something else for years, as well. “I grew up in the business,” Odom says, meaning the meat business. Tennessee Pride was started in the middle of World War II, in 1943, by Odom’s grandfather, Douglas Odom Sr., with considerable help from his grandmother, Louise. Douglas Odom actually had been a meat cutter all his life, and he ran a meat stand, similar to a farmers market, on the square in downtown Nashville. He already knew a thing or two about making sausage. So after experimenting with different spice formulas, he came up with the “secret recipe” that began the great success story of Tennessee Pride Sausage. Odom’s Dad, Douglas Odom Jr. and his brother, Richard, succeeded Odom’s grandfather as the second generation of family in the business, and Odom has continued that tradition that began 68 years ago. And that tradition has turned out to be, for the most part, breakfast sausage, including fresh and sausage rolls, sausage patties and links, fully-cooked pork and turkey sausage patties and links, chicken biscuits, creamy gravy made from sausage and breakfast sandwiches.

“When I was still in school, it was within walking distance of our plant. In fact, I started working in the plant at the age of 12. Summers and holidays, I was always working at the plant. But I was serious about getting that aerospace degree,” Odom says. Halfway to his degree, Odom began giving his decision a little more thought. Several things happened that didn’t change his mind about getting the aerospace degree, but got him thinking about what he wanted to do after graduation.

“The wind-down to the Vietnam War made me realize a huge number of pilots were returning and pouring into the airline industry. A glut of pilots was developing and I realized I was going to be competing against all of them.”

Odom did graduate from Middle Tennessee State with his aerospace degree. But instead of making a living as a pilot, he decided to join the family business. “I think I always knew I would get into it eventually. But I was thinking about the flying because I didn’t want to feel I could just walk into the business, because of who I was.”

And he didn’t. The summer after college graduation, he went to work with the family business as a relief salesman. “Then I became a foodservice representative in sales for two years.” This was a good step to take, he believes, because he had no sales experience up to that time. He had “a good [sales] run on the road” for a few years, then came off the road and started the company’s QA program.

“In those days, QA was done by supervisors, certainly not a kid like me. But when I came off the road from selling, my Dad said to me, ‘QA will give you the opportunity to put your money where your mouth is.’ He wanted to see what I was capable of doing.”

At the time, the company also had plants in Adairville, Ky., just a mile north of the Tennessee state line, and in Little Rock, Ark. Within three years, young Odom was the plant manager in Adairville, which expanded in size for 17 straight years, but which the company no longer operates. “At the time, our Tennessee plant was still under state inspection, so the only way we could move product outside Tennessee was to be in another state, like Kentucky. So when we opened the Kentucky plant, it was a USDA-inspected facility. Now, of course, both our plants are USDA. Tennessee Pride no longer has the Kentucky plant, but operates manufacturing facilities in Little Rock, Ark., and Dickson, Tenn., with the company headquarters nearby in Madison.”

Odom is glad he decided to stay in the meat business, and particularly with the family business, but if he had to do it over, he would have worked at other meat processing companies along the way, rather than just holding different jobs at Tennessee Pride. “That would have been a good thing for me to do, to get experience other places and see how they operate,” he says.

Expanding the business

Tennessee Pride expanded into Arkansas in 1979, taking over a beef kill plant being phased out at the time. Since then, the kill floor was demolished and the new one is now five times its former size. Odom says the Dickson plant is home to the manufacture of sausage and biscuits, gravy, patties and sausage balls. Activities at the Little Rock plant include slaughter, cooking, ready-to-eat products and raw products, including foodservice and retail.

Tennessee Pride is a mid-sized, meat-processing operation. It is privately held, with annual sales of about $188 million, and has close to 800 employees at the three facilities. Odom is, indeed prideful about the company’s 68-year old brand focused on processing breakfast sausages. “We specialize in breakfast-sized sandwiches and we’re one of the biggest in the US. Jimmy Dean, for example, is wider in distribution, and we’re second in size to them across the US.” He says Tennessee Pride sells their products in the South from Florida to Virginia, in the Midwest, and as far west as Arizona, but does not penetrate the West Coast or the Northeast.

Odom says he has worked with the “people” and the “business” sides of the business and likes both. But after spending years in sales, he was ready for a change. “I liked the sales a lot, but I was getting more excited by the idea of helping the plants to improve, make them more efficient, with better quality.

Having someone to deal directly with some of the day-to-day problems arising in the business has been a great help. Since 1994, the company has relied on Jim Stonehocker, COO, to do that. “He has a wonderful ability to keep us out of trouble, make sure the customer and operations side are working very well, where I try to keep my eyes on the whole operation.”

In operating a business, whether it’s in the meat industry or any other type of manufacturing, Odom believes it’s important to communicate with the members of his leadership team and with all of his employees. “It’s very important not to surprise each other, to spring things on my team that they have no idea is coming.”

By the same token, he believes there is value in learning on the job. “At the upper levels of the leadership team, I’m not interested in training people. They can learn as they move up into upper management. But for people who are moving into this level, I like people who already know the business. I’m not here to hold their hands because if I’m going to have to do their jobs, then I don’t really need them. Instead, my job is to provide resources for them so they can do their jobs and help the company.”

Odom says he’s “hands-off” and lets his employees do their jobs. “I don’t micromanage our senior management team,” he says. “I want to make the resources and programs needed available for my team.” The company is too large for Odom to have his hands in every single activity going on. Instead, Odom and his senior management team meet every week, keep each other abreast of what’s going on and what needs to be done. Emails fill in the blanks.

If Odom was starting up his business now, instead of guiding it through its 68th year, he thinks he would have to have his finger on the pulse of everything going on. But not now. And that’s not to say the business of Tennessee Pride Sausage hasn’t changed dramatically over the years because it has.

“You might not believe it, but we’ve been in the catfish business, restaurant business, the country ham business and the rendering business. And we’re not involved in any of those today.”

Bright future

The company chairman and CEO sees a great future for Tennessee Pride, thanks to a number of things the company does. “We talk to our consumers – constantly,” he says. “Our customers help guide us toward the products we come out with – fresh sausage, patties, etc.”

But he also sees consistency at this point helping the company in the future. There’s always change because there’s always a demand for something new. “If you try to stay right where you are, you fall behind,” he believes. But he also doesn’t see the company doing anything wildly different. “Retailers expect new ideas from time to time, and we supply them,” he says. “But we also don’t throw new things at the retailers’ wall to see what sticks. We want to supply items that are successful for our retailers, not 50 new items every year.”

Very big companies tend to bring out many new products and see what works, he believes, resulting in a good amount of failure as well. Tennessee Pride is more methodical.

Odom acknowledges not everything he does works. “My weaknesses would include adult attention deficit disorder,” he jokes. Even though he’s quite methodical, he would like to be more organized. Piles of opportunities sit on his desk, not all of them receiving rapid action. But he views a major responsibility as keeping track of all the formulas the company uses. “Nobody else does that but me.”

Morality and ethics also plays an important role in how Odom runs Tennessee Pride Sausage, giving the company, and what it’s doing, a compass, a direction to where it’s heading. “My Dad and uncle dictated we were always to do the right thing. Sometimes taking the time and trouble to do that can hurt or slow down what you’re trying to accomplish. But trust, personal integrity, mutual respect, ethical behavior – those are the most important things in life,” Odom says. “For customers, employees and suppliers, we try to do the right thing for them all – it’s very important. We try to be on time with deliveries to our customers all the time, so we don’t hear from them. It’s very important.”

Competitive advantage

What is also important in the meat industry, or any other industry for that matter, he believes, are competitors. “They keep you keen, keep you on your game,” he says. “And we have big competitors – Johnsonville, Jimmy Dean, Bob Evans. We also have lots of smaller competitors.”

Odom says three-quarters of the company’s business is retail, with the rest devoted to foodservice. He says for foodservice the company offers good value, but not always the best price. That’s especially true of branded product like Tennessee Pride. “If a company is not involved in branding, the model is different,” he says. “But we go to a lot of trouble to protect our brand, and those whom we make products for.”

There are a number of major challenges affecting the operations of Tennessee Pride. Odom is extremely concerned about the continuing recession in the US. But he believes the company is recession-proof to some degree. “Our products are good values, when you look at their costs to consumers,” he says. But like the rest of the meat and poultry processing industry, higher costs of raw materials have taken their toll.

“The price of hogs, meat trimmings and other supplies for our products are at long-term highs,” he says. “I’m afraid that’s not going to change, at least for quite a while. With people doing more of their eating at home, especially breakfast foods, is certainly a boost to the retail side of our business.”

Commodity pricing is a major issue Odom has to deal with. Another is the continuing consolidation trend in the retail and foodservice industry, which makes customer decisions carry a lot more sway. “If you grab a big customer, it can be a blessing at one point in time, but it can also be a curse,” Odom points out. “It sounds hard to believe, doesn’t it? But decisions customers make can be frightening for smaller businesses. This gets back to us talking about competition and competitors. If you’re over one cent a lb., that can be devastating to companies our size and smaller, because you can lose a lot of business. It may not always affect larger businesses the same way,” he says.

While there are many challenges facing Odom, there are also goals and opportunities for the company. He sums them up succinctly. “I want to be able to provide great products to all my customers, whether they’re on the foodservice or retail side. At the same time, I want to be sure I always provide great service after the sale, so Tennessee Pride will always prevail as a preferred supplier in the industry,” he concludes.