Twenty years later, in the mid-1990s, the operation expanded to raising hogs as well, when Niman met Paul Willis, a farmer from Thornton, Iowa. He was revitalizing sustainable hog-farming methods in the Midwest, moving away from traditional and common industrial practices. The two shared a dedication to animal welfare and stewardship of the land, so Niman Ranch began expanding to offer a variety of proteins.
Today, the company is led by Jeff Tripician, its general manager, and although operated independently, is owned by Perdue Farms. “I’m one of 11 general managers in companies owned by Perdue,” Tripician says. “I’m the head of the company. If we were a stand-alone, my title would be CEO and president,” he says.
Building of experience
Tripician has a diverse background in the industry. After he graduated from college, he began what’s turned out to be 29 years of consumer marketing and branding experience within the food industry. And he has 17 years of experience in the meat industry.
Like some others in the meat industry, he started his brand management career at Procter & Gamble, and then worked in the meat industry as a product manager at Sara Lee Meat Group. “I moved to the dairy industry to be a director of marketing for Borden Dairy in Ohio, and then went to a trade association. I became the vice president of marketing for the International Dairy Foods Association.”
Tripician then became famous for a marketing coup in the food industry. He led the development of the Milk Mustache Campaign, a public relations triumph that revolutionized the dairy industry for the positive, and is still used in the industry today.
He also served as chief marketing officer for Frontier Natural Products, and president and owner of the brand strategy consulting agency TM Branding. He also served as chief marketing officer for Coleman Natural Meats. And while he was at Coleman, he built the first natural multi-platform business program.
Tripician knows two things very well – how to sell and how to grow a business exponentially. Years ago, he also sensed the increasing interest by Americans concerning what’s in their foods, and their interest in organic and natural foods. In fact, right now he’s working to complete his Master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture.
All this seemed a natural partnership for Tripician and Niman Ranch, which was already doing business in the natural segment and moving further into it at a steady pace. So, 11 years ago, Tripician joined Niman Ranch, and has been the steward of growing the company from a regional marketing presence to a national industry-leading brand. He’s doing this by expanding distribution channels and expanding the geography of the company. Since 2006, the company has more than tripled in size, while also building profitability at an accelerating pace.
“In 2006, I was part of a management team working with a private equity group to buy the company from Bill Niman. I was CEO of the company. We sold the company two years ago to Perdue. Nothing in the company has been changed by Perdue. They add a sense of surety. They added HR, IT, things like that. The private equity group cashed out. But the management team, including me, is still here. The only thing that changed is my title. There are no people from Perdue here.”
While the company is headquartered in Alameda, California, Tripician lives in Boulder, Colorado, so he can be with his family. Niman Ranch works with more than 729 farmers growing the animals for the company.
|||READ MORE: Niman Ranch|||
As of last September, all the company’s products, including pork, beef, lamb and processed meats, are Humane Certified, which means they’ve passed the highest farm animal welfare standards from a leading non-profit certifier. All the animals are raised by small family farmers according to the strictest animal-handling protocols. “We have three main pillars in this company,” Tripician points out. “First is our humane animal care. Our standards for that care have been created with the help of Dr. Temple Grandin, from Colorado State Univ. Secondly, we believe very strongly in sustainable agriculture, based on environmental, economic and ‘people’ perspective. We have robust practices in all our agriculture, including that of our farmers, that allows the land to thrive and be sustained. Our third requirement is that our family farmers who work with us have to own and manage their land.”
He notes that Niman Ranch complies with the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) definition of the term “natural” – minimally processed, with nothing artificial or synthetic, including color additives. “The animals are raised on pasture or in deeply bedded pens on vegetarian feed – no confinement and no gestation crates,” he says.
Tripician believes Niman Ranch is the right place for him to lead, because the company aligns with his business philosophy. This company is like the others for whom he’s worked, because they share his values. “My father was a graduate of West Point, and so I was brought up with strictness and honesty, and I’ve tried to absorb those values and transfer them to how I run a business. The philosophy in this business is transparency – people who work in this company need to know that they matter. It’s an open book and we ask questions: Who do we hire? We don’t want our employees to be compartmentalized. Who do we want as customers? These questions I raise refer to a shared set of values that we have both for our employees, our farmers and our customers,” he said. “I think the natural food industry has a lot of that philosophy.”
Tripician tries to create “best practices” for the company to follow, “which is an ongoing process. We’re a little atypical, because we have a cross-section of other business partners, including consumers, that we sit with, from time to time, and ask them to help us -- how can we be better? There is never any discussion in this company that doesn’t focus on how can we improve as a company and as food-makers.”
He also tries to provide a good leadership model for the company. “In areas where we do a fine job, I’m a cheerleader for Niman Ranch and what we’re doing. In areas where we’re facing challenges, I’m involved very deeply, although I try to make that as temporary as possible.”
He cites a lot of his success in the business world, and in life, to his upbringing and moral training. His grandfather emigrated to the United States from Italy. Tripician says his grandfather instilled in his family a sense of what it is to work hard. “He drilled into us what honest hard work is. When I began my career after school, I worked at companies that conform to that idea.” He says priorities include providing leadership to his management team, employees and family farmers, fulfill promises made to customers and consumers, and fulfill financial promises that are made to the company owner.
In this early 21st century, as consumers continue to challenge manufacturers and businesses, Tripician believes the meat and poultry industry is moving in the right direction on many fronts. “Yes – in land management, relationships with employees and farmers, transparency in treatment of animals, I think we are. If we don’t, if we’re doing wrong, the world will learn about it instantly, thanks to social media and the 24-hour cable news networks. Retail food marketing is changing drastically too, with space in stores being filled by products consumers really want, as well as making a transition online. Who knows what’s coming next,” he says with a laugh.