Fifteen years ago, Shelly Stayer started training for a new job at Johnsonville. She worked in the factory putting together packaging boxes. She went to the harvest floor and learned firsthand how the animals were slaughtered and processed. And, she worked in member services, helping ensure Johnsonville employees had the best work-life balance possible. Despite getting experience in almost every part of the Johnsonville business, she wasn’t prepping herself for a job in production, operations or human resources. She was training for a job only her husband Ralph C. Stayer could give her. His.
Fifteen years ago, Ralph C. Stayer, then chairman of Johnsonville LLC, told Stayer she would one day follow in his footsteps and take over his role in the company. That day has now come.
In February, Ralph stepped down from the leadership role he had held since 1995 and passed the torch to his wife Shelly.
“My husband always said, ‘I made the first success story, you make the second,’” Stayer says. “About 15 years ago, Ralph told me his plan for me to take over. We didn’t have any children in the business at that time, so he was looking to me. So, I started learning as much as I could about the business – and learn I did.”
Shelly Stayer is just the third person – and first woman – to fill the position of chairperson since the company was founded in 1945.
“Shelly has been my confidante and advisor for the last 25 years, making an impact at Johnsonville in many capacities – from innovation and board leadership, to member and product development, and making our work environment an exciting and attractive place to learn and grow,” Ralph said at the time of the announcement.
All in the family
Johnsonville LLC, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, has its roots in the butcher business. First generation owners Ralph F. and Alice Stayer came up from Milwaukee on a mission to buy a butcher shop in New Holstein, Wisconsin, in 1945. When that fell through the couple found another option in the neighboring town of Johnsonville – population 65. They pooled their money with another couple to buy the Johnsonville Meat Market. Years later, after buying their partners out, Stayer’s Johnsonville Meat Market was officially a family business.
With Johnsonville being such a small town, it was a challenge selling enough product out of their store, so the Stayers formed a partnership with Century Foods Group and started selling Johnsonville meats out of larger retail shops. Their sausage soon became the most popular product sold in the stores, outselling many of the local varieties.
In 1978, second generation Ralph C. Stayer became president of the company. One of his first tasks was getting Johnsonville product sold and recognized outside the state of Wisconsin. To achieve this goal, Ralph realized marketing, promotions and sponsorships were going to have to play a role. It was at this time that Johnsonville became the official sausage of Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers. This sponsorship lasted for 11 years and was reinstated in January 2018.
“We left the sponsorship for a while, to move some of our marketing dollars outside of the Midwest, but then it was a pride thing, we wanted to come back,” Stayer explains. “The Brewers came back to us and asked us to sponsor again, and we knew we needed to say yes.”
The company also recently partnered with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers on its creation of Lambeau Field’s Johnsonville Tailgate Village, which opened in 2017. Located on the east side of the Lambeau Field parking lot, the 13,200-sq.-ft. building houses a full kitchen, a spacious bar, a party deck, 35 plasma TVs and serves Johnsonville products before and during Packers games to patrons with or without tickets to Lambeau.
In the late 70s, while growth was steady for the company during Ralph’s early years as president, Johnsonville still hadn’t achieved the national recognition and distribution Ralph was striving for. By 1981, things would change. Ralph hired an advertising company to develop a national campaign. Focusing on the company’s brats – one of its top selling products – the ad agency developed a campaign that would help the Johnsonville name become synonymous with brats forever more.
Enter Charlie Murphy – the dad caught secretly grilling Johnsonville brats who is outed by his neighbor who yells, “Charlie Murphy’s making Johnsonville brats…Johnsonville brats.” Fictitious Charlie Murphy became the unofficial Johnsonville spokesman from that point on as Johnsonville brats started to be recognized and soon sold around the country.
Hand in hand with the Charlie Murphy campaign came a boost in recognition from an on-air Johnsonville brat “plug” by sportscaster Bob Costas during a 1982 World Series broadcast. Costas loved the Johnsonville brats he was served while covering the World Series Brewers/Cardinals game so much that he mentioned the brand on-air. “Our business probably doubled immediately after that happened,” Stayer says.
By the end of the 80s, Johnsonville brats, and other Johnsonville products were sold in 47 states.
“We’ve always had a wide variety of products – Johnsonville breakfast, Johnsonville dinner, Johnsonville snacking – but no matter how hard we have tried in the last 75 years, the bratwurst is what we’re known for,” Stayer says. “We use the Johnsonville brat notoriety as often as we can – it gets us in the door. As they say in baseball, ‘any way on.’ We get in the door with the Johnsonville brat reputation, and then we show them we have so much more to offer.”
Including regional offerings such as andouille and chorizo, Johnsonville now offers upward of 100 different sausage SKUs to its retail and foodservice customers.
The full line of Johnsonville products will soon all be available under one roof – at the new Johnsonville Marketplace across from company headquarters in Sheboygan Falls. Set to open in May 2020 as a part of the company’s 75th anniversary celebration, the store will sell Johnsonville products to employees and passersby.
Bigger and better
Company expansion from one year to the next led to the need for additional production facilities at Johnsonville. The company’s current global headquarters opened in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, in 2005. Three of the company’s production facilities are located at the headquarters. Additional production plants are located in Kansas, Illinois and Watertown, Wisconsin.
In 2015, Ralph stepped down from his role as president of the company after 37 years. Nick Meriggioli, former president of Oscar Mayer, took over. At that time, the company’s employment was up to 1,300 people.
“Our new CEO, Nick Meriggioli, wanted to hire the best talent in the country after he took over, and I wanted to make it really attractive for people to move here to Sheboygan Falls, so we decided to renovate our headquarters,” Stayer says.
In 2017, Johnsonville began construction on a 49,000-sq.-ft. addition to its headquarters. “Some of the planners proposed a new building that they said would be a tribute to the family and the history of the company since 1945. Ralph said, ‘No. We don’t ever look back. We only look forward. We want a futuristic building in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t go with the farming landscape around us. We’re a futuristic company, so we only look forward.’”
When arriving at the Johnsonville headquarters in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, the first word that comes to mind is “brat.” Not only because Johnsonville has been known for its brats for most of its 75 years in business, but also thanks to a new sculpture that sits across the street from the company’s new building. Standing 20-ft. tall across from the global headquarters, are the letters B and R on top of the letters A and T. The BRAT sculpture is the design of Robert Indiana, the sculptor most recognized for his “LOVE” and “HOPE” word sculptures found around the world. Indiana was commissioned by Ralph and Shelly Stayer to design the four-letter BRAT sculpture. It was the last sculpture he designed prior to his death in May 2018.
During the design phase of the project, Shelly Stayer had tried to contribute some ideas and suggestions to the artist, including that the sculpture be designed to stand vertically. But Indiana said no. He also nixed the suggestion that the letter A be tilted like the letter O is in the LOVE statue. “We later came to agreement on the colors and the design of each letter, and ultimately we were thrilled he agreed to do a sculpture for us,” Stayer said.
While the BRAT sculpture currently sits alone, next to a field across from headquarters, it will soon be next door to the new Johnsonville Marketplace that is set to open in May 2020.
Indiana isn’t the only artist on display at the Johnsonville headquarters. Prior to commissioning Indiana, the Stayers also collaborated with American artist Frank Stella to design a 3,800-lb. multi-dimensional “star” containing 12 colored aluminum pieces to sit in the front gallery of the headquarters as a part of its 2017 renovation. In fact, after the artist agreed to design the piece and described what it would look like and how big it would be, the architects had to redesign part of the building. The Stayers wanted the art to be featured prominently in the facility and seen illuminated at night from the outside. The star sculpture is now the feature of the “Star Gallery” in the new offices.
The new “futuristic” addition included a member development center, additional workstations, an expanded fitness center, a café, a number of other employee-friendly amenities and features sculptures and artwork from renowned artists.
After working throughout the company for years, Stayer admits her favorite roles were in member (employee) services. “I love finding out how to make our members happy – how to create a good work-life balance.”
Finding out what the employees were looking for in the new HQ was the job of the renovation planning committee, largely led by Stayer herself. “I wanted to find out what people wanted – what would make them happy at work. Do you want a daycare, doggy care, a café, a gym? My husband and I had a vision – an upgrade to the campus that would make it amazing and would attract people from all over to come work here,” Stayer explains. “We wanted it to have the best workout facility, a café equal to those in downtown Milwaukee – we wanted our facility to attract the best members from all over the country,” she says. “So, that’s what we built. And now it’s happening. Huge talent is moving here from all over the world. We’re now able to attract anyone. Our vision worked.”
The newly expanded global campus is comprised of five facilities – the global headquarters corporate office, the Tech Center, which focuses on new product development, and three production facilities that produce fresh and fully cooked varieties of Johnsonville sausage for domestic and international retail and foodservice customers.
Of the Johnsonville members who are employed at the Sheboygan campus, around 70 percent work in production and 30 percent work in the corporate offices or Tech Center.
Fifteen years ago, when Ralph first shared his plans to hand off the leadership role to his wife, none of the next generation worked at Johnsonville. Now, five of Ralph and Shelly’s children work there. Michael Stayer-Suprick and Laura Stayer – Ralph’s children from a previous marriage – both work in the international division. Michael is president and Laura works in international marketing and sales. Three of Shelly’s children from a previous marriage also now work for the company. Jon Wagner works in the supply chain department; Brittany Wagner is on the retail marketing-communications team; and Brooke Wagner works on the foodservice marketing team.
First a new CEO, then a new HQ expansion and now the transition to Shelly Stayer as the new chairwoman of the company. Change is constant at Johnsonville LLC, and if Stayer’s goals are met, change will continue.
“I’m a very practical person – my vision is simple. I would like to double our business,” Stayer states as her goals as the new chairwoman of the board. According to information reported from Johnsonville for MEAT+POULTRY’s annual ranking of the industry’s Top 100 companies, in 2019 it ranked No. 37 with annual sales of $989 million.
“We have an amazing board of directors. Sometimes I pinch myself – I can’t believe we have such talent on our board. There are a lot of impressive bios on there. They have big expectations of me,” she adds. “I have big expectations of myself – and of the company.”
“The baton has been passed – I have it in my hands. But I’m not afraid to raise my hand and ask for help. Ralph is still around – he’s the Sausage King – he’s on campus every day,” Stayer says. “If there’s an issue or if anyone has a question, Ralph’s the one who knows everything. He still knows the business inside and out – which is fortunate for me.”
While Ralph spent a lot of his time during his tenure attending industry trade shows – including the former AMI show and IFFA in Frankfurt, Germany, every three years – learning about production and processing technologies, Stayer is putting her focus more on new product development. “I’m laser-focused on new product innovation. I want to see what new ideas are out there and see what we can adapt to our business.
“It’s an exciting time to be us. So far, the transition has been very smooth. But if I’m going to double the size of the business, I’m going to need world-class talent working here to get it done. It’s what we need, and I’m not afraid to go after it.”
Recruiting talent to work at Johnsonville isn’t a new task for Stayer. In fact, she’s always made it a practice over the years to keep track of top high school students in the area. “I’ve always kept track of where they went after high school, what they were doing. Were they coming back to the area? Should I try to get them to come back to the area?” Stayer explains. “I love finding talented individuals and getting them to come and work here. It’s a great company to be a part of. We treat our members like family. We are a family.
“We use our company to grow our members – we don’t use our members to grow our company,” she explains. “We’ve been saying and doing that for 75 years.”
As the company celebrates a milestone next spring, with its newly renovated global headquarters, a new company marketplace opening its doors and a new chairwoman at the helm, the obvious question is, what’s in store at Johnsonville for the next 75 years? Simply put, Stayer says, “We want to be the best company in the world, that just happens to make sausage.”