It’s easy to see the massive John F. Martin & Sons meat processing complex from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a cross-state roadway that divides the original 55-acre family farm. But what can’t be so readily discerned is how the legacy of a Stevens, Pa., farmer, who in 1930 started delivering fresh produce to the Philadelphia public marketplace, has blossomed into a processing powerhouse.
“We’re still on the family farm,” says third-generation General Manager Bernell Martin. “Yes, we cover eight Mid-Atlantic states with our products and even truck our own products as far west as Wisconsin. But we are still very much a family business that has remained true to its basic values.”
When his grandfather John F. Martin began adding poultry to the inventory of his farmer’s market stands in Philadelphia and throughout the area, beef and pork became a natural next step. Custom slaughter and processing ensued and the original family farm house that still stands near the white barn is dwarfed by the processing complex that surrounds it. Yet it remains at the center of the Martin family dream.
“Today we would call ourselves more of a hybrid processor and distributor,” Bernell explains. “We’ve made hard decisions to give up our deer processing and slaughter, things that were difficult for some in our family and long-time customers to accept. We have moved in a direction that offers us the best chance of being around for generations to come.”
Indeed, the second generation of the Martin farming and meat processing operation took a major step when it began to retail its meat products at a newly opened Hollinger’s Roadside Market. And in 1961, John Martin started a new company with his four sons.
Twenty-two years later, the family opened its own Martin’s Country Market at a mall in nearby Ephrata, a facility that was totally renovated in November 2012.
The apparent shift into retailing also provided the Martin family the opportunity to help market meat and dairy products from other family-owned processing companies throughout Lancaster and Lebanon counties.
This partnering has led them to serve as major distributors for other local companies such as Lebanon bologna from Seltzer’s Bologna and drinks from Turkey Hill Dairies. Partnering and managing can be a slippery slope, a fact not dismissed by Bernell.
“We took great care in determining that our best market plan was to the small Amish and Mennonite stores, those that sold local products, often in bulk quantities,” he confides. “We looked to the small, independent, family- owned and independent grocery stores because they wanted local quality meats. That has served as our base for the past 15 to 20 years.”
While the Martin enterprise today sells to regional grocery chains like Weis Markets and Giant’s, it has partnered with a few thousand smaller accounts to solidify the core of its business.
Expanding production to serve its growing marketplace has meant more changes. While the family still maintains a 600-head herd of Angus cattle, it has spun off the farm as a separate division, preferring to sell the live cattle rather than doing its own slaughter. A separate family division operates a trucking company and another deals in real estate.
Bernell, 41, who went to work with the company after high school, says his training has been “on-the job” in all phases of plant operations. Plant management is shared with another third-generation family member, Jay Martin, who handles purchasing responsibilities, and a fourth-generation member, Kenton Martin, who serves as assistant plant manager.
|||Read more: Behind the scenes|||
Behind the scenes
It would be normal at this point of the story to detail the litany of products manufactured under the Martin family name. But perhaps it is more helpful to understand the pattern of growth and clear thinking while offering a few examples of what makes this enterprise tick.
In June 2011, the Martins took advantage of state and federal funding to use solar power to supplement their growing demand for electric power. They constructed a 3,000-unit, ground-mounted array of solar panels that produce 1 million kilowatts of energy. Today this energy represents about 20 percent of the electricity used in the company’s processing operations.
When the family determined it needed a separate bacon factory and slicing facility, it looked around for property and priced new structures. Eventually, the Martins located a 195,000-sq.-ft. steel-frame building 12 miles away in Womelsdorf. It had been sitting empty since the Valley Forge Flag Co. relocated its operations to South Carolina.
“It was less expensive than finding ground and building totally from scratch, and then going through all the land-use, zoning and permit processes, which could take years,” Bernell explains. “Our major problem was that the roof was too low at 13 feet. So we were able to contact a company that could hydraulically jack up the roof to the 20 foot level.
“This gave us a facility that we could move into much faster and accommodate the height of the equipment we needed to install. Although we still do not use the entire building, we feel we have room to grow, and we were able to add nearly 100 jobs to the local economy. This facility was on line and operational one year ago.”
The company has about 225 employees and does all of its training in-house.
With two second-generation owners and seven third-generation and two fourth-generation Martin family members with meat backgrounds, the company is a standout in the region and a stalwart in its native Lancaster County.
Bernell explains: “We feel we have the family, the staff, our partners, modern equipment and a great facility and want to continue to grow. And we love our rural setting. We have been fortunate. But no matter how much you try to do the right thing, you have to remember that you are in the food business. We take our responsibilities very seriously, but have to keep in mind that something can always go wrong. It is challenging and worrying about things you might have missed that can keep you up at night.”
Bernell says a key to the company’s success has been to consistently produce higher quality products, even though it faces significant price pressures from others in the market.
“Some fall into the trap of believing that the cheaper you can make a product, the greater your chances will be for success,” he comments. “We will not erode our quality for growth and will do whatever it takes to maintain the high quality level of our products.
“A very large percentage of our business is in making and private labeling meat products for other partners,” Bernell adds. “I often think that this end of our operations has grown because we seek and partner with people who also want those high-end products. Maybe it’s not so much a philosophy or management trend with us as it is in seeing and recognizing that making things the right way is the only way.”
The hard-to-miss slogan on the website, johnfmartinmeats.com, its trucks and its business cards explain who they are: “Country People Making Country Goodness.”