(Photos by Pete Barreras)
Danny Dupree feels genuinely at home either at the Bar-S plant in Clinton, Okla., where his career began 33 years ago, or at his picturesque ranch about seven miles from the plant.
“I do two things,” says MEAT+POULTRY’s 2015 Operations Executive of the Year, “Bar-S and my ranch.”
It’s easy to see how his passion for each role overlap and require some of the same attributes. Both endeavors depend on a team committed to working hard and where success depends on productivity, efficiency and an expertise that comes from years of experience. This comes natural to the 55-year-old Dupree, who was raised working on his family’s ranch in western Oklahoma. He left the farm after high school to earn his accounting degree at Southwestern Oklahoma State Univ. at Weatherford. Next, he immediately started working at Bar-S in Clinton, but not in operations. He remembers it well.
“I started working here part-time at Bar-S at this facility in accounting in March of 1982.” At that time he was still a part-time student, just 22 years old, and in the final semesters of earning his degree. He would later continue his education and become a certified public accountant. “But I enjoyed working here so I stayed here,” he says, noting he focused on the financial side of the up-and-coming business.
Dupree has worked tirelessly for decades to become vice president of operations at Bar-S Foods Company, a packaged meat processor of more than 120 products, including hot dogs, sliced meat, bacon and corn dogs. Based in Phoenix, Bar-S has operated as a subsidiary of Mexico’s Sigma Alimentos since 2010. His evolution from bean counter to operations guru is a testament to the passion and loyalty he has to a company and an industry. He has dedicated his career to serving. Dupree has moved across the country for the company and played a significant role in its growth, practically from Day One, following the lead and learning from the company’s founder, Timothy Day. He has been part of the company through good times and bad, as it grew from a regional hopeful to a national powerhouse and ultimately to a coveted acquisition target for one of Mexico’s largest food-company investment companies.
Unassuming in a pair of not-quite faded jeans, well-worn quill ostrich boots and a starched dress shirt, Dupree’s easy-going demeanor is adaptable to his at-work and away-from-work roles nowadays. His dream of becoming a rancher began as an aspiring cowboy, watching in awe of his dad, who raised cattle dating as far back as he can remember, and learning the meaning of an honest day’s work. Likewise at Bar-S, he started learning about the meat processing business from behind the scenes, yearning to play a more hands-on role someday.
|Timothy Day, founder of
“Danny has a background in accounting and quickly grasped the financial elements of a manufacturing operation,” says Day, whose current role is serving on the board of directors. “He was able to use this knowledge to isolate and address arears that were not in control or were excessively expensive.”
To that end, when given the opportunity to transfer from Clinton to a Bar-S ham and bacon-processing plant formerly located in Denver, Dupree jumped at the chance. This chapter began in 1985, when a still green Dupree assumed the role of controller at that facility. Three years later, opportunity knocked again and Dupree moved even further west as his role slowly transitioned away from the ledger, with a new focus on selling products. There, in northern California, he led sales and distribution in a region that also included Hawaii, Reno and the Lake Tahoe, Nev., area. During this stint, he was trusted to oversee the business of an important customer.
“At that time we did Costco’s distribution,” he recalls. “We ran trucks to all the Costco stores and handled almost all of their frozen goods and fresh products.”
At the start of the next decade, Bar-S made the commitment to expand its operations in western Oklahoma as it grew its business.
“They offered me the opportunity to come back and manage the Clinton plant,” an offer he readily accepted and one he wasn’t about to pass up to get back to his roots. After a decade of learning and leading at the Clinton facility, Bar-S began expanding significantly in western Oklahoma over the next 10 years, opening plants in Altus and then in Lawton. Along with this growth came a bigger role for Dupree, who was appointed division vice president for the three plants. In 2010, with the acquisition of Bar-S by Sigma, his role grew even more, adding the operational oversight of Sigma’s then 2-year-old Seminole, Okla.-based processing plant to his responsibility. He also assumed the new position of vice president of operations.
The learning curve
As a young gun with the company, Dupree relied plenty on Day and Bob Uhl, CFO and later president of Bar-S. Day, a former US Marine and Harvard Business School graduate, started with the company in 1981 after working for years with General Host Corp., including six years leading its largest subsidiary, Patrick Cudahy Co., based in Phoenix. He served as president and CEO of Bar-S until the late 1990s and passed the baton to Uhl, who assumed that role until Warren Panico was named CEO in 2012.
|Danny Dupree, vp of operations, Bar-S Foods|
“Tim and Bob were the mentors in the startup days,” Dupree says. “They are both very hands-on.” They had to be as they were a small company with people like Dupree starting their careers with the new firm right out of college. “It was a struggle,” Dupree admits, “and everyone was hands on.” Day and Uhl knew they were working with an inexperienced staff and their priority was to teach and mentor the future leaders of Bar-S.
“They placed a lot of faith in the younger guys,” adds Dupree, who became plant controller by the age of 25. “They also worked, hands-on, alongside those people. We didn’t know a lot about the business and they were the leaders who showed us the way.”
Day says Dupree’s skill set evolved and his ability to identify areas of improvement has always been one of his gifts.
“Besides being analytical, he is very creative and can envision how to change plant layout or equipment to get more efficient throughput of production,” Day says. “Over the years, he has developed an expertise in equipment design and can readily determine if a new product is mechanically sound and will perform as advertised – so we make very few bad equipment decisions.”
Panico came to Bar-S in 1997 from Cargill, where he worked in operations before overseeing international sales at Bar-S and then moved to head of operations, “and he’s been my boss ever since,” Dupree says.
Panico considers Dupree much more than an employee.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Danny for many years now, first as a colleague and then side-by-side, running the operations for Bar-S Foods,” Panico says. He considers Dupree one of the company’s most well-rounded executives.
“Danny’s strong knowledge of our business and operations has allowed us to continue to be the low-cost producer in our industry by maintaining some of the best-run facilities in the packaged food industry,” he says. “He has not only been a strong and consistent contributor to the company, but also a personal friend.”
|||Read more: Acquisition adjustment|||
When Sigma acquired Bar-S, Dupree says the transition was very smooth and both companies have maintained their identity while making the overall firm stronger. He points out that in acquisition deals, “there are good transitions and bad ones,” and the bad ones usually involve the merger of a strong company with an underperforming one. “That wasn’t Bar-S. We were a very successful company then and still are today.”
He categorizes Sigma’s involvement in the Bar-S operations as “hands off,” adding that because the parent company already had operations and sales representatives in the US, they were blended into the US operations. Sigma, which previously was based in Houston, moved its headquarters to Phoenix, along with most of its sales and support staff.
It isn’t uncommon for Dupree and Panico to travel to Monterey, Mexico, to visit the Sigma plants to get a closer look at some new equipment innovations and other operations. The sharing of thoughts around process improvements, automation and sharing resources are ongoing.
There is no communication barrier among upper management with the two companies, as English is the universally utilized language. But this is not the case throughout the ranks. “Their frontline supervisors speak Spanish,” he says. “My frontline supervisors speak English.”
Beyond the language issue, the two companies haven’t had significant challenges in assimilating the two cultures.
“There are differences between people who grow up in western Oklahoma and people who grow up in New York City, too,” Dupree points out. “But there are no major cultural differences.”
While there were no operational adjustments at the Bar-S plants made as a direct result of the acquisition, the Sigma plant in Seminole, Okla., plant did get some tweaks under Dupree’s supervision.
“Seminole was a startup plant and they were struggling at the time of the merger,” he says, which meant spending considerable time at the plant and helping develop the team there. Working through the growing pains, the plant now is on target with its production and efficiency goals. “We went through some of the same struggles at Altus, and Lawton,” he says, which included hiring workers and even some supervisors with little or no production experience.
Through his decades of experience, Dupree is able to sense the productivity at most plants after spending a little time watching the plant operating. When it comes to downtime, he says there is usually a link to a maintenance or sanitation issue. But there are other barometers as well.
“You can tell by whether or not the people are happy,” Dupree says. “You can tell if they are pleased with the way things are running and the job they are doing; all the way down to the people who are packing and palletizing. If it’s not running well, they get discouraged.”
With his position comes an adjustment in day-to-day activity. “These days I don’t get to spend as much time in the plants as I used to,” he says, due in part to the need to travel to industry events or visiting other facilities, not to mention the growing number of meetings and conference calls that are almost daily.
Sometimes it is the most challenging times that bring out the best in a company’s people and their systems. This was the case in 2001 for Bar-S, when it recalled 14.5 million lbs. of meat and poultry over the discovery of Listeria monocytogenes in products made at the company’s Clinton plant.
|Dupree focuses on results.|
“That was a changing point in the way we ran our business,” says Dupree. Once the problem was realized, Day and Uhl jumped into action.
“They drove that recall and said, ‘If we’re going to have a recall, it’s going to be the best recall that’s ever happened,’” Dupree recalls.
Throughout the company, everyone rallied to redouble sanitation efforts and then methodically applied the same attention to the company’s other plants, raising the bar on food safety and sanitation system-wide.
“If you’re going to have a recall like that, you want it to be a good recall, but you don’t ever want to go through it again,” Dupree says.
Leading, not leaning
“I’m not a micro-manager,” he says. “I don’t stand over my guys.” Instead, Dupree focuses on results and when performance lags, he points out the areas of concern. A big part of his success in day-to-day efficiency is due in part to the fact that many of the plant managers have been with Bar-S for many years, working their way up through the ranks just like Dupree did.
“We know each other and what makes each other tick so we have very open communication, and they know what I expect,” he says. “Many times they will point out an issue before I have a chance to bring it up because they see what I see. I take pride in making sure they understand what causes problems, and they react and solve the problems as they constantly strive for process improvement.”
Bar-S founder Day adds: “He is very good at motivating people and leads his manufacturing team by example.”
Dupree has earned plenty of credibility among the people he leads, right down to the clothes he wears to work each day. “People are a whole lot more comfortable with you if you’re dressed like them and if you’re down there working with them,” Dupree says, “instead of showing up in slacks and a tie. Bar-S isn’t a coat-and-tie company. It never has been.”
Among his contemporaries in the industry, Dupree is far from a gadfly and doesn’t go out of his way to rub shoulders with operations executives working with other processors, although he’ll run across other operations execs at industry events on occasion.
“I honestly don’t know my counterparts at the other companies very well; I just don’t,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of them don’t even know who I am. I’m just a western Oklahoma boy.”
Improvement in plant operations is made easier thanks to technology that was not available when Dupree first started with the company. Clipboards and paper-based logs that were used to track production decades ago have been replaced by electronic tools, giving plant supervisors the ability to generate production, yield and labor reports remotely and around the clock.
Suppliers and advances in equipment technology are vital to the success of the Bar-S plants too, according to Dupree. Diagnosing problems with equipment is another value suppliers offer when maintenance issues exceed the expertise of plant mechanics.
“The suppliers train our mechanics,” either on site or at the supplier’s location. With the ability to utilize online tools to plug into more modern processing equipment, productivity is improved and troubleshooting more effective compared to how things used to be in Dupree’s early years in the industry.
“It has dramatically helped in reducing downtime,” he says.
|||Read more: Selective automation||
Automation is an integral part of operations at Bar-S, but it isn’t a feasible solution for certain products and to serve certain customers’ needs. “There’s technology out there that we don’t use,” says Dupree, pointing out that the Clinton plant operates on a batch basis.
“There are some products that don’t fit into an automated system. Automation is great, but you can’t be changing over every three blends and have technology work for you. It [automation] works great when you have large-volume SKUs [stock keeping units] that you can put into long-run, automated processes.
“When I started 33 years ago, you never would have imagined running product at the speeds we’re seeing now and what has made that happen is automation,” he says. “We’ll continue down that path because that’s what drives operational efficiencies.”
One of those automated plants is the Seminole facility, which utilizes an Armor-Inox system that has taken a lot of labor out of the cooking process via an immersion technology for packaged products. When a new process is undertaken, automation is utilized whenever possible. In these cases, “our suppliers are great at drawing up processing lines,” based on production requirements and product specifications, Dupree says. Given the consolidation in the supplier community, more equipment companies are able to offer a wider variety of equipment. Dupree thinks this evolution is good for processors.
“They have more resources and are able to work together,” he says, comparing the evolution to the advantages Bar-S has realized by its consolidation with Sigma.
Eye on improvement
Continuous improvement and efficiency is Dupree’s mantra. In his mind, this means “delving into the work; watching the work; seeing the movements and developing ways of making it easier and more productive for the employees.”
New product innovations are a common focus among company leaders. More often, R&D involves current products with a flavor tweak – with chipotle, jalapeño and cheese among the common profiles.
“We constantly are doing product testing at our facilities for new products and new flavorings,” he says. Innovating products for new segments is part of the company’s strategy as well, he adds.
|“I do two things,” Dupree says. “Bar-S and my ranch.”|
If he wasn’t a lifelong Bar-S employee, Dupree says he’d be a full-time rancher. For now, he’s a hobbyist rancher, raising registered, pure-bred cattle and traveling around cattle country to sell and show cattle and breeding stock. Ranching is a family affair and has been for years, involving his two sons, one who is a junior at the Univ. of Oklahoma and the other who is a freshman at Southwestern. The elder son is studying finance and accounting like his father while the other son will likely get a business degree. Like their father, “they won’t get very far away from the farm,” Dupree says, as they both have a passion for ranching and living a rural life. “They want to stay involved.” Weekends on the Dupree ranch, he says, are like vacation time.
In his mid-50s, Dupree has no immediate plans for retirement. His philosophy is similar to many seasoned basketball and football coaches considering retirement. “As long as it’s fun and it’s challenging and I want to get up every day and come to work and do this, I’ll continue to do it.”