Having never learned to swim, Chris Rupp might be the most unlikely candidate to own a pontoon boat, two Jet Skis and a house overlooking the Missouri River on the Nebraska-South Dakota border. In many ways, Rupp, vice president fresh meats beef operations at Tyson Foods Inc., is the product of thriving in challenging situations. Thirty-four years ago, Rupp never imagined himself going from a hard-working farm hand in western Kansas to eventually overseeing some of the biggest beef processing operations in the US for one of the largest meat companies in the world. But none of his success is unlikely to those who have had the opportunity to work alongside Rupp as he’s spent his career ascending the industry ranks – learning, teaching and adapting to changes at every turn.

When he started at IBP Inc. in 1984, Rupp was a bit reluctant to go to work for a big company after spending his life living on a farm near Garden City, Kansas, his family didn’t own, but where his father and his six siblings worked until a few years after he got out of high school. His first taste of change would come after he applied for a job at a big beef packing plant outside of town. Embarking on a new, non-farming career path was a leap of faith for Rupp, who was then a green 23-year-old.

“All through my career the only thing I’ve looked for is the little wins.”

“I loved farming; absolutely loved it,” he says. What he didn’t love was seeing his father work tirelessly most of his life for a farmer only to retire with almost nothing to show for it. Rupp was one of seven kids where hard work was a part of life, but a big salary wasn’t. “Growing up without was part of what we did. But we didn’t really know we were without.

“I could see myself going on that same path and I had to make a decision,” he says, recalling his exposure to the beef industry was limited to a couple of years he spent working at a neighboring farm where about 3,000 head of cattle were in production at any given time. “That got me into the cattle business,” which required round-the-clock attention to the herd. “Working 12- and 14-hour days is what I grew up on,” and he figured working in a beef plant couldn’t be that much of a stretch.

In his early 20s and starting a family, Rupp was enticed by the prospect of applying his farming know-how and cattle production knowledge doing a job that offered more than working on a ranch without benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and the potential to move up the ranks.