Robert “Bo” Manly was just out of grad school and working at his first career job for a large agricultural conglomerate, the first rung of a career that eventually took him to the executive suite at Smithfield Foods, to the president’s office at Premium Standard Farms, and to the chairmanship of what was then the American Meat Institute. On that first job, however, he found himself dressed in an apron and rubber gloves, standing at a stainless steel table in a noisy slaughterhouse, checking for insect grubs in beef weasands.
“Here I was, a graduate of Harvard Business School, and I’m up to my elbows in weasands,” he laughs now at the memory. “I kept thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”
Years later, when he attended reunions of his Harvard classmates after he had become executive vice president and chief synergy officer at Smithfield, Manly enjoyed responding to questions about what he was doing. “I’m a pig farmer,” he’d say. When the questioner’s eyebrows inevitably shot up, he would add, “A really big pig farmer.”
In February of this year, Manly retired from his long career in meat, which dates back to 1977 and that weasand table. From the humble beginning, Manly helped guide some of the most significant developments in the industry in recent decades, distinguishing himself as one of the first of a new kind of industry executive: well-educated, worldly and open to good business ideas from far outside the sometimes cloistered world of meat.
Among the many achievements he posted across his nearly 40 years in meat, he cites with particular pride his involvement with Smithfield’s successful vertical integration of its pork business and the rebuilding of Premium Standard Farms following a bankruptcy.
|Bo Manly in his days at Smithfield Foods.
Smithfield’s vertical integration changed the very animal the pork industry is built upon. Hogs became leaner and sleeker, with far less weight than the Buick-sized market hogs of yore. The effort was so successful that Manly admits it went a little overboard. “Back in 1986, a hog at slaughter typically weighed 265 lbs. and the meat had hardly any flavor,” he says. “Now it’s up to 280 lbs., and I think that’s just about right. We have the best hogs now and the best pork that we’ve ever had.”
Vertical integration did more at Smithfield than change its supply chain, however. “What we did was, in effect, become a marketing company, selling pork from the farm to the consumer,” Manly says. “This was a new kind of meat company.”
Manly’s career began when “food safety” at a few meat companies still meant sweeping out the sawdust on the floor. “We used to think that anything below 50?F was cold,” he remarks. “Now our diagnostics have become so sophisticated that we know exactly where the safety issues are in the process. Still, there are strides to be made.”
He worries that the weakest link in the food-safety chain is still the consumer. “There’s a lack of education that’s still a real problem,” he says. “There’s still a sense among consumers that if they buy it at the store, it’s safe. Yet, at the same time, people don’t trust the government and they don’t trust corporations, so who do they think is making that meat safe? It’s up to them, in the end, but more and more I’m seeing that people have no idea how food safety works in their own kitchens at home.”
Manly’s first couple of decades in the industry also brought him close to some of the old-time, rough-and-tumble meat chiefs who still ran the business in the 1980s and ’90s, and while he’s proud of the way the industry has developed in recent years, he laments that with the disappearance of people such as Bob Peterson of IBP, Ken Monfort of Monfort Foods and Joe Luter at Smithfield, the industry has probably lost forever the kind of executive who learned and best understood the industry’s hardest, toughest lessons.
“What I learned from Bob Peterson was how much details count,” he says. “He believed, and he proved it at IBP, that everything would work out if you kept your eye on all the little things, from the cost of labor to the cost of packaging to the cost of electricity to run the plant.”
Peterson began his meat career as a cattle buyer, and even after he had run IBP for several years and had built it into the biggest beef packing company in the world, there was still something of the cattle buyer in him. In the IBP CEO’s office, the legendary executive’s face lit up whenever Peterson told stories about dickering with ranchers. “I don’t think a cattle buyer could become a company CEO anymore,” Manly says. “Executives now are specialists, and in a way that’s too bad for the industry. Peterson gave something to IBP that would be almost impossible now to replicate.”
Manly remembers Joe Luter as being “the best boss in the world. If you wanted to do something, he’d say, ‘Go do it.’ He gave you all the resources you needed. He was very entrepreneurial, and he encouraged that spirit in his people.”
Manly says one regret he has in his career is that he never was able to solve the problem of odors from large hog farms. “We spent a lot of time trying to find a solution. It’s still a problem waiting to be solved, which means it’s a great opportunity for someone else.”
When he retired in February, he truly retired – Manly’s only connection to the industry, besides old friendships, is as a member of the board of one of Smithfield’s joint ventures. He lives in Key West, Fla., in the winter and in North Carolina in the summer. He’s building a house in Mexico just north of Puerto Vallarta, and last summer he got remarried.
“I’m a blessed individual. I’ve done everything you could do in the industry, from checking those darn weasands to helping run some of the industry’s best companies,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful career.”