This past March, Darwin “Duke” Sand was promoted to president and CEO of Merriam, Kansas-based Seaboard Foods LLC. He succeeded Terry Holton, who recently announced his retirement from the leadership position he held since 2011. Having worked in the pork industry for approximately 30 years, Sand spent the past 22 years with Seaboard, most recently as senior vice president of sales with responsibilities for all sales and marketing, a position he held since 2011. He also led Seaboard Foods’ pork export business, working as vice president of international sales. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Iowa State Univ., Sand’s career in the industry began in 1987 at IBP Inc., where he worked in sales and leadership until 1996.
Sand takes over the company at a time when the pork industry is facing global uncertainty with major export markets like China responding to US tariffs on some Chinese imported products with tariffs of their own that target US pork imports. Meanwhile, labor shortages and ramping up several new US pork plants have many processors seeing green while exercising caution. Sand recently answered questions about taking over the leadership of Seaboard Foods, market headwinds and tailwinds influencing the pork industry and the challenges and opportunities he faces.
MEAT+POULTRY: Seaboard Foods and its partners are obviously experiencing a lot of growth as of late, including the new STF plant (and adding a second shift), a newer Daily’s plant coming online recently, expansion at the Triumph facility, etc. What are some of the factors fueling the growth for Seaboard and the pork industry as a whole?
Duke Sand: A few things are fueling our growth. Global demand for pork continues to grow and the United States is the competitive leader in producing cost-effective, high-quality pork. The competitive spirit of American producers to always do more with less while improving productivity, which in turn increased the need for more processing capacity. This played a key role in our decision to build another state-of-the-art processing plant to be sure there was a reliable outlet for this expansion. Lastly, global consumer demand for affordable high-quality, safe pork produced in a sustainable manner has driven the expansion. The connected food system we’ve created with our strategic partners positions us to be the leader in meeting this demand for the long term.
M+P: There is an ongoing battle for center of plate among species, what are some of the protein trends you’ve recognized more recently and what is Seaboard’s strategy looking forward in order to be in the best position to compete in the space, which now includes plant-based and cultured proteins?
Sand: Consumer demand is shifting toward smaller portion-controlled packaging, bold flavors and the expectation of transparency from their food supplier. In addition, they expect consistent quality and great taste in the pork they purchase. We are in the business of producing nutritious protein with real meat in a transparent and sustainable manner. Our connected system delivers this while going above and beyond due to the inherent traceability and alignment from our farms to family tables around the world. We strive to create the most sought-after pork products for our diverse global consumers.
M+P: As an IBP employee during the 1980s and 1990s, what were some of the lessons you learned in the shadow of industry legends like Bob Peterson and others prior to joining Seaboard? Talk about your time at IBP and the transition to what would be the next 20-plus years of your career with Seaboard.
Sand: I had the privilege of working for and with a number of great people at IBP, and my biggest takeaway was to have a passion for this industry. I learned we can’t have waste of any kind in an industry that relies on live animals as our primary input. We have an obligation to the animals and producers to create all the value we can from our inputs, while doing it responsibly in a sustainable manner.
I started my career in international sales at IBP back when international markets were limited and exports were less than 5 percent of sales. Years later, I had the opportunity to join Seaboard Foods in its infancy and help build and develop our own international sales business.
My time spent on the international side of the business developed my basis for how I view all our sales relationships. I see all our customers as partners, and as such, we work together to make each other better by pursuing to offer the most sought-after pork products for our mutual end user: the consumer.
M+P: As vice president of international sales during your early years at Seaboard, what are some of the biggest differences in international trade practices then versus today?
Sand: The biggest differences are that we are more engaged across the production system in what it takes to satisfy our international customers’ demands. The industry today understands what it takes to be successful in other markets, and we have better access to those markets through trade agreements that did not exist when I started in the business. We’ve learned one size doesn’t fit all when selling in the global marketplace with diverse global consumers.
M+P: Mexico, China and Japan are obviously important and longtime trade partners for US pork exports. Volume and values of exports to Mexico have more than doubled in 10 years while those to Asia have steadily increased. Where do you see the next potential emerging market being for US pork exports?
Sand: South America and Central America are both growth areas because of trade agreements that have helped foster these markets. Specifically, the Dominican Republic and, more recently, Colombia have shown strong year-over- year increases in US pork imports. Other countries in those regions still show strong promise and opportunity.
However, we must stay focused on China, Japan and Mexico. These markets still present huge potential for increased sales, and we continue to face strong competition in each of these markets. It is essential we protect the trade we have in those markets, while we look to continue to expand on other opportunities.
M+P: Domestically, there have been dramatic changes in the retail food segment. How do you see Seaboard and its partner companies navigating and adapting to these changes and what role, if any, does e-commerce play in the strategy moving forward?
Sand: We have developed a connected food system with our strategic partner Triumph Foods that purposefully connects every step between our farms and family tables. That has put us in the best position to adapt and respond to customer and consumer demand with our Prairie Fresh and Daily’s brands. Beyond that, we recognize e-commerce, portion control, pre-seasoned, meal kits and fully cooked pork products will require more consumer-friendly packaging, bolder flavors and a commitment to transparency and sustainability. We are well-positioned to provide consistent, high-quality pork with our Prairie Fresh and Daily’s brands that consumers will demand going forward.
M+P: The entire meat and poultry processing industry is facing challenges from a widespread labor shortage and rising freight costs. What are some effective strategies for coping with these headwinds?
Sand: Our strategies must focus on efficiencies, automation, consolidation in distribution, and focusing on what we do best versus trying to do it all. We are experts at caring for and raising livestock in a sustainable way and our state-of-the-art processing facilities allow us to provide wholesome, high quality Prairie Fresh and Daily’s branded pork on a consistent basis to satisfy consumer demand. We will be measured and deliberate in our approach and leverage our core competence to meet our customers’ and consumers’ needs.
M+P: What are some of the lessons you learned in your decades of leading teams that you think will serve you well as an effective leader in the future?
Sand: Surrounding myself with people smarter than me, and letting them do what they do best has always been my approach in leading. I have to provide a clear vision, work collaboratively, and benchmark the progress to be sure we stay on track as a team. Everyone in our system is essential, from those working on our farms in all weather extremes to be sure our livestock are well cared for and comfortable to the plant employees who take pride in trimming to our consistent specs to the transportation worker calling on trucks in the night to be sure our products arrive on time. We are all dependent on each other for the mutual success of our connected food system.
M+P: What are the biggest challenges in the food industry facing today’s CEOs?
Sand: Ask me that in a year or so as I’m so new to my CEO role. I suspect my answer will involve labor in some form or another as well as free trade, or the lack thereof.
M+P: Having worked in the pork industry and the food business for decades, what are one or two of the biggest changes in the market that are on your radar in the next five years?
Sand: One is the growth in e-commerce leading to more individualized products and more convenient product packaging. The other is labor availability. One challenges the other so there is not an easy solution, but it will be centered on sticking to our core strengths, driving for efficiencies, and building a culture that fosters employee retention.
I’m blessed with a smart and creative team around me so I’m confident we will find solutions to these and other opportunities that arise.