Even though he’s only eight months into his first real job after graduating from college, Ryan Thornton is already tossing around industry jargon like a meat-processing veteran. As merchandiser for Fulton Provision Co., Thornton has been a quick study and learned to talk the talk after just a handful of months on the job. According to Paul Mooring, vice president of operations of the Portland-based beef processor, Thornton is also walking the walk.

“Even though he’s new to the meat business and has worked for Fulton for less than one year, it’s clear that Ryan possesses the talent, drive and leadership to make an impact on our business,” Mooring says. “In a short amount of time, Ryan has learned this business from the ground up; everything from costing to yield formulas and portion control profi ts. He has learned more in months than some learn in years.”

Thornton admits working in the meat industry wasn’t necessarily on his career radar screen while earning a degree in business at Oregon State Univ. But growing up working on a friend’s farm that produced grass seed taught him the value of a strong work ethic and the fulfi llment of working in agriculture. While a student at OSU, he worked at a grass seed certification lab and also did a stint working at a company that produced hops.

After graduating from college in 2008, he found himself among thousands of bright-eyed grads anxiously seeking jobs in an economy that was dipping into the early stages of a recession that would last years. While job hunting, Thornton took a job with the City of Salem, working on a street maintenance crew for about 18 months.

The months-long job search led him to Fulton, where he was hired as an associate merchandiser. He soon discovered that succeeding in this role would require learning all he could about the meat industry. “Asking a lot of questions about things like the different cuts of meat,” Thornton says has been the secret to his early success, not to mention to his almost constant reliance onThe Meat Buyer’s Guide, “which has really been like my Bible,” he jokes. The 26-year-old, hired to oversee raw material supplies and ensure production yields are met, has embraced what has already evolved into an expanding role. He learned the value of being flexible when, after one day on the job, the man who hired him moved to Las Vegas for another opportunity. Thornton admits that at that point, “it was kind of hard knocks. I just had to hunker down and learn.”

Thankfully, several other execs quickly took him under their collective wings, including Mooring. Already, Thornton is being exposed to parts of the business that make his merchandising role more clear, from processing and plant operations to accounting.

A quick study

A subsidiary of Houston-based Sysco Co., Fulton was one of several regional meat companies the foodservice distributor acquired in the early 2000s. While still in high school during many of these acquisitions, Thornton appreciates that the companies are allowed to maintain their identities while benefiting from the support of the much-larger entity. “It doesn’t feel like you work with a big corporation when you work here,” he says. With about 50 employees working in the processing plant and approximately 20 in the adjacent office, “you know everyone by name and don’t feel like you are going to be lost in the shuffle.”

“I have come to count on Ryan as a go-to-guy for assistance with inventory, production and toss just about everything I can his way, which he takes all in stride,” Mooring says. “I know that if Ryan stays with this business he will be a rising star for a long time to come.”