Leading the way

Rupp doesn’t hesitate when describing his leadership style. “Firm, fair and consistent,” he says. “Over my career I’ve been tough on people, but I’m fair and I think I’m pretty consistent with how I hand that out.

“I’m an old school guy, but it brings me back to the values I grew up with. At the end of the day people just want respect and that’s the thing you’ve got to give them.”

He says in today’s environment, striving for multiple small victories is a goal worthy of pursuing and keeping the funnel full of the next generation of industry leaders depends on the current ones paving the way.

“We’ve got a lot of young folks coming up and teaching them and giving them the tribal knowledge is some of the best little wins we can have.”

For example, after weeks of training a newcomer on the how’s and whys of keeping a knife sharp and then seeing that training pay off when that new worker puts those practices into action; that he says, is a little win. “You don’t get a pat on the back for it, but you see that what you’ve done really made a difference.

“These are the folks I grew up with. They put me in this position; they are my family.” 

“All through my career the only thing I’ve looked for is the little wins. If I can’t get the little wins it would not be a very good career.”

He reiterates that it’s been a village effort. “It has taken every one of those people that have been surrounding me for the last 34 years to get me to the point that I’m at today.”

As he looks to the future, Rupp has no plans of retiring back in his western Kansas birthplace.

“I’ve committed my heart and soul to this area. This is my home now,” he says of the Siouxland area. In fact, he has built a home on a riverfront property not far from the plant, where he and his family and friends spend much of each summer. Despite maintaining a boat and two Jet Skis for cruising the Missouri River, the 57-year-old Rupp admits he never learned to swim. But ironically, “It makes me so relaxed to watch that water flow by. I can have the toughest day ever and go out there and sit for 30 minutes and it just calms me down.”

Looking ahead to his career after Tyson, Rupp plans to put his tool belt back on and tackle some small-scale construction and carpentry jobs.

Staying in touch

Almost monthly, Rupp will visit the three plants he’s responsible for, located in Finney County, Kansas, Dakota City, Nebraska, and Joslin, Illinois. The company also operates beef plants in Amarillo, Texas, Pasco, Washington, and Lexington, Nebraska, which previously were also overseen by Rupp, so he’s no stranger to those operations, but also doesn’t miss the responsibility of the additional facilities.

During plant visits, Rupp makes it a point to sit in on management meetings, where he gets a sense of what is being worked on at a given facility, “and see if they are only reacting or if they are being proactive; obviously I like to see the proactive efforts.”

And he always spends plenty of time on the harvest and processing floor, watching and listening.

“That’s how you keep your finger on the pulse and that’s definitely how you know if you’re getting your point across.”

One lesson he learned early is that only talking to managers during plant visits just tells part of the story. “I’ve developed very close relationships with the team members out on the floor and they’re never afraid to tell me what’s really going on.” He says input from workers on the front line of the operation is valuable due to the many hours they spend doing the work that counts. “They’re the experts,” he says.

Recently, while visiting the Finney County plant alongside one of the plant managers, the manager said that walking the production floor with Rupp was like walking with the mayor, due to all the production workers stopping to shake his hand. “I said, ‘no that’s not it at all.’ These are the folks I grew up with. They put me in this position; they are my family and most of them in Finney County I’ve known for 30-plus years.”

The formal job description for an operations manager doesn’t include some of the most important roles, Rupp says. “In this business there are many times you become peoples’ marriage counselor, their priest; sometimes you’ve got to help them through a lot of tough times.

“These folks are my family. I’ve been around them so much, it’s like walking into a family reunion every time I go to a plant.”