When most people think of thriving poultry companies based in Springdale, Ark., George’s Inc., a fourth-generation, integrated firm isn’t the first one to come to mind.
In this poultry-rich region, George’s history dates back to more than 90 years, when C.L. George opened a small general store while raising turkeys and a few cattle at a farm in the Brush Creek community.
“It was just like everybody else in the ’20s, trying to make a living however you could,” says Gary George, chairman of the venture that was started by his grandfather.
What began as a modest grocery store has evolved over the past nine decades as an enterprise C.L. George couldn’t have imagined in those early days. With operations now in three states, nearly 5,000 employees and sales approaching $1 billion, the family-owned poultry company processes products for some of the most successful foodservice and retail chains in the country. The business was handed down from C.L. George to his two sons – Gary’s father, Gene, and his uncle, Luther. The brothers successfully ran the business along with their father until the untimely death of Luther in 1969 followed by the passing of C.L. just six weeks later. Gary was attending the Univ. of Arkansas at the time and he realized the burden of running the business fell squarely on the shoulders of his father, who assumed the role and title of president of what, in 1973, became George’s Inc.
After graduating from the Univ. of Arkansas in 1972, Gary joined the company, working mostly in sales during the early years. He never considered a career outside the family business and the unspoken expectation was that he would be the next generation of family ownership after college.
“Nothing else ever crossed my mind,” he says of other career aspirations. “I knew what I wanted to do and everyone assumed that’s what I would do.”
Within a decade of joining the company, Gary found himself at the helm.
“In 1980 he made me president,” Gary recalls, “when I was 30.” His father Gene then assumed the role of chairman, but stayed involved with the company and helped his son adjust to his new leadership position.
In the 1980s, the company expanded, including the construction of the Cassville, Mo., plant. “You’ve either got to grow or eventually you’re going to sell,” Gary says. “So we made the decision to build the plant from the ground up,” which was the industry’s first project of that scale in nearly two decades. During that time, the company expanded its Springdale feed mill, along with purchased feed from other integrated companies until the Cassville mill was built in 2005
A rich history
The company’s heritage is rich and its early leaders are memorialized in stunning oil-painting portraits that adorn the walls of the office of its headquarters. From that office, Gary reflects on the proud history of his family’s business and looks to the future of it with optimism.
He discusses the details of how the company diversified, including delving into all aspects of the poultry business, from operating egg production facilities to hatcheries and starting a propane business, which is still operating today. He harkens back to his grandfather’s love of buying and trading land, running a cow-calf operation, raising turkeys and nurturing orchards where he enjoyed working, growing apples and peaches. C.L. George’s farm, where it all started in Brush Creek, is still owned and maintained by the family.
That tradition of diversity continued through the years. Gary remembers his father and uncle began packing table eggs in the back of the Springdale facility when he was a small child. “It grew over the years,” he says, “and at one point we were approaching 2 million hens.”
That number was dialed back through the years, and George’s sold the laying business in 2007 to focus on what would become its core business.
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Two for all
This was also the era when Gary’s twin sons, Carl and Charles, took a more active leadership role in the company. Having worked at the company growing up, the brothers began learning all aspects of the business in 1997, from production through processing and sales. In 1994, while the boys were still in high school, Gary hired Monty Henderson, the former COO and president of Pilgrim’s Pride, to help him continue growing the company.
“Besides marrying my wife, it was the smartest decision I’ve ever made,” says Gary of the partnership he formed with Henderson.
His fresh perspective and vast experience in the industry made Henderson’s appointment as president and COO a move Gary would never regret. Before his retirement in 2009, perhaps one of the most valuable contributions Henderson made to the company was serving as a mentor to Charles and Carl as they prepared to take over the company. He still serves as a trusted advisor to the company today. Otto Jech, a 60-year veteran of George’s who served as executive vice president, also was a teacher to the fourth generation of leaders of the company prior to his retirement.
Before his sons followed in his footsteps, Gary asked them to write down the top five careers they wanted to pursue.
“I’m happy with what they chose, but I wanted them to be happy first,” Gary says.
Their father did insist, however, that if the boys planned to work in Arkansas, they needed to attend college at the Univ. of Arkansas.
“I thought that was important,” he says, because of the connections and networking it would provide with people in the state and beyond.
Charles and Carl joined the executive team in 2006, after graduating from the alma mater of their father. At that time, Gary was acting CEO and president and his father, even in his mid-80s, remained involved with the company, still serving as its chairman. Gene passed away in 2010 at the age of 88.
In 2013, Gary continued the family tradition by passing the torch to the fourth generation.
“My dad made me president at 30. I made [Charles and Carl] co-CEO and co-presidents at 30,” Gary says, noting they were “much more ready than I was” in terms of understanding the details of the business.
Part of that preparation was the mentoring they got from their dad and the other company leaders, but another important part of their development included working on the processing floor, at every position in the plants.
Appointing the twins as the new leaders of the company also sent a positive signal of stability to the rest of the company.
Sharing leadership responsibilities and titles is unusual, especially between brothers and even more uncommon among twin brothers. And Gary knows about the pros and cons of working alongside family members.
“That’s not to say we never disagreed,” he says. “But we’d do it behind closed doors and when we came out it was with one voice. We have a strong family bond.”
Part of getting along is sharing the same vision and the Georges would agree the company has a history of making conservative decisions and is measured in its growth plans.
When the brothers were announced as co-CEOs and co-presidents in 2013, the declaration was more of a formality considering the responsibilities they inherited after Henderson retired.
The brothers set the tone early in their leadership tenure, demonstrating their plans to continue growing the company. One of the first examples came in 2011 when George’s acquired the former Tyson plant in Harrisonburg, Va., which would prove to be a valuable big-bird processing facility. With George’s already operating a small-bird plant in nearby Edinburg, “It gave us greater ability to serve customers in the Northeast with a larger bird offering,” Charles says.
More recently, an investment in the expansion of its further processing plant in Springdale, less than a half mile from the company’s headquarters, allowed for increased par-frying capacity to serve national account customers. Approximately 800 total employees work at that facility, known to most in the company as “Porter Street.” There, home-style chicken strips are cut, tumbled, battered and fried on one of three par-fry lines and then quick-frozen in one of three freezers, including one large-scale spiral unit.
When the Porter Street plant renovation was completed in early 2014, the blueprints included a test kitchen complete with commercial-grade equipment where customers can simulate the processes they utilize at their restaurant or deli. “Now we can interact with customers at a culinary level,” Carl says.
This past year the brothers also spearheaded the expansion of the Springdale processing operation (located about two miles north of the headquarters on Kansas Street) to handle big-bird processing. The renovation was designed “to allow for greater efficiencies and allow for serving more customers,” Charles says. The strategy has been to focus specific plants on dedicated operations so the success of the company isn’t over leveraged in one part of the business.
The revamped plant now employs about 980 workers on two shifts per day to slaughter and process birds with a target weight of 7 lbs. The plant has been expanded to include eight deboning lines. Currently, capacity hovers around 210,000 birds per day. Designed for growth, the additional lines allow for daily capacity of up to 268,000 birds.
The newly configured plant conveys whole birds in the second-floor processing area onto a mezzanine, where they are cut-up and sent to a leg and front-half deboning operation below. The plant produces 50 percent leg quarters and some bulk products, such as breast and wings and deboned leg meat that are shipped across town to the nearby Porter Street facility, which focuses on portion-controlled breast production, par frying, product freezing and whole-leg deboning.
The expansion of the deboning operation at the Springdale processing plant required a significant portion of the plant to be idled for approximately two weeks.
|Charles George, co-president and co-CEO of George's Inc.|
“We were able to shift production to our other facilities,” Charles says, including the Virginia deboning operation and the plant in Cassville, Mo.
An automated whole-leg deboner is a new addition to the line at the Springdale plant. The company’s leg deboning business has been a mainstay for over 18 years. Automating that process has been a significant upgrade, Charles says.
Previously the only leg deboning operation was across town at the Porter Street plant. “We were packing whole legs here and hauling them across town and re-dumping them, which meant a lot of double handling and yield loss,” Charles says. “Now it’s all done right on the line so it’s a much more efficient operation.”
George’s relies on the typical export markets for sales of the back half of the chicken. There’s still more opportunity for value-added products in the export arena, “but by and large, it’s still the back half of the bird and paws and tips,” Charles says.
Charles explains that because so much of the company’s foodservice customers’ products are size specific, the consistent carcass sizes are critical. “We’re not a commodity deboning company,” he says. “We’ve got a strong, committed foodservice customer base that buys product by the pound and sells it by the piece, so we manage live weight and carcass size consistency across our operation.”
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|Carl George, co-president and co-CEO of George's Inc.|
Carl says besides the investments the brothers have put toward upgrades and plant acquisitions, they’ve emphasized hiring and recruiting top-notch employees, enhancing IT systems and the infrastructure that ties the company together and make it more efficient.
Through the conversion, the brothers’ humility and lack of egos contributed to their acceptance among longtime employees and executive-level leaders. But everyone in the firm realizes that running a company successfully also means adapting and a willingness to change.
Building a leadership team at the company, Charles says, “and who you allow on that team are some of the most important decisions we make as CEOs.”
The brothers realize the value of maintaining a mix of longtime, loyal George’s employees while infusing the new perspective of some newly acquired talent, like Robert Garlington, vice president of operations for Arkansas and Missouri, who Carl says brings experience to the company along with some fresh ideas.
Farm-to-fork food safety
For integrated companies like George’s, food safety is a focus that starts with the breeders, broilers, feed mills and hatcheries and requires a multi-hurdle approach throughout the process, including in the plants.
Third-party animal welfare audits are a key part of the company’s efforts to maintain top-level animal handling standards.
“We do a lot internal training with our team members but also have the third party come in behind our internal audits, which we think is a key component to our animal welfare process,” Carl says.
Carl says the avian influenza (AI) outbreak has been the impetus for internal discussion and implementation of biosecurity procedures among its valued contract growers.
“It’s at the front of our mind right now and throughout the industry, especially as we prepare for fall and winter.”
Throughout George’s history, growers have played a vital role in the company’s success. Part of the relationship often requires George’s to ask its growers to increase housing and invest more in their business. Fortunately for George’s, these requests are typically honored by growers without hesitation.
“When people are willing to build for you, you know you’ve got a pretty good reputation with them,” Gary says of the longstanding grower relationships.
George’s employees number 4,800 today, and Carl says the company is well positioned to grow with its current system. Additionally, he says, “We don’t play heavily in the retail side of the business right now, so in the next five or 10 years that might be an area we might try to get into a little bit more.”
The company’s leadership team spends plenty of time discussing strategies and the shifts in the market that have recently been positive for George’s.
“Both foodservice and retail segments have leaned heavily into chicken in the past 18 months,” Charles says. Looking ahead, “We are looking hard at where it is that our customers want us to be.”
In the coming year, George’s annual sales are expected to approach $1 billion. “Some of that is due to inflation in poultry pricing but we have increased our production every year,” Charles says.
Carl points out that 2015 will be the first year since the brothers have taken over that George’s will break into the Top 10 poultry processors in production of pounds produced.
“That was a big step for George’s,” he says.
Gary’s transition to chairman means he still comes to work, albeit on a more flexible basis. “I don’t know what I’d do otherwise,” he says.
He pauses while thoughtfully reflecting on the company’s history and future.
“What better dream could a father have than to see his sons take over and be qualified and willing to work hard and still have the opportunity to be with them? Boy, I’m a lucky guy.”