Brent Cator likes to say that he’s not quite the fourth generation in his family to run Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd., in Brampton, Ontario. His grandfather Jack was the first, more than 80 years ago. He would buy steers from local Ontario farmers, then process and sell the meat to people in the nearby communities. “He was peddling meat in Bowmanville, 75 kilometers/47 miles east of Toronto,” his grandson Cator remembers.

Jack Cator began his butchering business in 1930, and passed on his entrepreneurial spirit, as well as his expertise in butchering and meat processing to his son Ralph, Cator’s father, who founded Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd. in 1966. While Brent Cator’s family has had a long and rich history, starting on the farm, then running butcher shops, and now producing some of Canada’s highest-quality and innovative meat products, the current owner and operator of this large, family-owned business looks optimistically to the future with aspirations for growth. One of those growth opportunities is to expand into selected areas in the United States.

“I say I’m the third-and-a-half generation because my father Ralph was just a young man out of high school and started a lot of butcher shops across the Toronto area,” Cator says. “My father decided in 1966 to focus on foodservice – restaurants, hotels and institutional customers.” He also bought out six partners who were involved with him in the businesses at the time. Ralph, Cator’s father, became a meat industry hall of famer. “He was the first Canadian to be involved in what’s now evolved into the North American Meat Institute (NAMI). I’m also a former president and chairman of NAMI,” Cator says. Right now, John Vatri, vice president of operations for Cardinal, is NAMI past-chairman – “He’s my right hand,” Cator says.

Despite the Cator family history in the meat industry, Cator wasn’t sure he was going to put on the family mantle and run with the business. “It’s true I had worked in the (family) business as a kid. When I came out of university, the Univ. of Western Ontario” – he was the first in his family to graduate from university – “I wanted to get management experience, not necessarily in the meat industry, and maybe even do something else,” he says. He looked at a lot of possibilities in the food industry, and not only in meat.

“I had a US job offer and two offers of jobs in Canada,” he says. “My father put a board of directors into the company, from the outside, not family members. And you know what? It was great to work with them.” One great lesson he learned by running his business from working with that board is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, Cator says with a laugh.

Taking the reins

Eventually Cator and his brother Mark bought the business from their father. Mark eventually decided to do something else. “He started a bicycle company here in Canada – Cube Bikes.”

So, Cator became the sole owner of Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd. At first, the company specialized in ground beef processing, making hamburgers. Eventually it would expand to manufacturing stuffed burgers with inclusions, and natural texture forming of ground beef. But those areas have expanded and today, Cardinal Meat Specialists specializes in two areas: manufacturing burgers and Safe Sous-Vide, which is a registered Cardinal trademark.

Even though the company began in the 1960s purveying raw products, today the company manufactures burgers and makes Safe Sous-Vide products. Sous-vide has become increasingly popular in North America, due to the explosion of food and cooking shows on TV and the Internet.

Many people do not understand how sous-vide really works. Sous-vide cooking involves sealing food in a vacuum-sealed pouch and cooking the food submerged in temperature-controlled water. Cator and many acclaimed chefs believe the process can result in more consistently cooked product. Vitamins and minerals are not lost in the cooking process and the meat stays moist from cooking in its own juices. That led to Cardinal’s line of Safe Sous-Vide products.

“Safe Sous-Vide is more cost-effective, plus it uses the natural juices from the products to create better eating experiences for consumers,” he says. While many consumers are trying to do this cooking process themselves, Cardinal’s products use 100 percent submersion cooking and result in consistent food all the way through. Cator should know – the company’s been using this process to make meat products for the past quarter century.

Principles of success

The success of Cardinal Meats and Brent Cator’s success is based on far more than coming up with new products and technologies. Instead, it has been dependent on a series of core principles and innovations that Cator’s team has brought to the company he’s helped build. “The first one is passion – loving what you do,” he says. “A lot of people don’t love or even like what they do, and that makes for a tough life overall.” Secondly, he believes in dedication – when the going gets tough…you don’t quit.

“The third, I think, is accountability. I’m accountable to a lot of people -- you might say I have many bosses.” These bosses include the other people on his management team, all the employees at Cardinal Meat Specialists, who total 160 full-time employees, and seasonally upwards of about 250. Then there are consumers of Cardinal’s products, who are the most important. That accountability allows this privately-held company to rack up $175 million in annual sales, now closing in on $200 million.

A fourth principle, he believes, is honesty and integrity, “always doing what’s right. If you’re not doing that, you’re not going to succeed in the long run.”

And the last principle is carrying out the employees’ dreams and goals. “What are our dreams and goals? We ask ourselves that question all the time. And I’m not just talking about mine,” he hastens to point out. “Our employees have dreams and goals as well. The people who work in the company – what do they desire or aspire to? That’s very important.”

For example, Dan Milanovic’s goal was to take Elite Meats, a brand he had built, and scale it larger. “We could help him with that, and that’s what we’re doing,” Cator says of the business deal between Cardinal and Elite in May of this year.

Cator also believes he tries to accomplish other important goals as he runs the company: “I’m trying to provide differentiated and innovative products for our customers. I’m also trying to carry out what I call a philosophy of ‘servant leadership’. I’m here to make sure that our employees have what they need to be successful.”

He also wants to make sure that Cardinal Meat Specialists is a leader in food safety for the meat industry. Through various means, including the use of DNA, Cator is trying to achieve new levels of safety in the industry, in following and enhancing Canadian and US food safety laws and regulations. He thinks Cardinal’s customers turn to the company because it has that passion for accomplishing its goals. “Sometimes it’s hard for large organizations to take core values and live them every day. At Cardinal, we are committed to living our core values and seeking customers who value our dedication to their success.”