Part of the team pushing Jamaica’s poultry processing industry to the next level includes (from left): Mark Haskins, Dwayne Perry, Fergal Mac Mahon and Mario Brown.
Mark Haskins has circled March 27, 2021, boldly on his calendar. In 14 short months, the poultry innovator who is credited with bringing air-chill technology to the US chicken-processing industry in the late 1990s and later transformed the poultry industry in Jamaica, is planning to retire, on a spacious farm on the island’s east coast, living in a house that’s being built to overlook the Caribbean Sea. But the 68-year-old Indiana native who has worked for the past 11 years as CEO of Kingston-based CB Group, is not leaving the industry without making a huge impact. By early 2021, a massive construction project led by Haskins to integrate the company’s hatchery operations, poultry production, poultry processing, rendering and a 500-acre farming operation on a 900-plus-acre site at Hill Run Farms in St. Catherine, is expected to be completed. The Hill Run Farms R&D facility for livestock is where the company will produce 2.5 million chickens and more than 7,500 hogs annually. A state-of-the-art water treatment facility is also part of the environment-friendly operation, where a well supplies water on site.
Appropriately dubbed “The Nest,” the $115-million complex’s centerpiece is a $70-million, processing plant that spans about 110,000 sq. ft. Haskins proudly says the project represents the largest agricultural investment in Jamaica’s history and will be the first operation of its kind in the Caribbean. The poultry plant is designed to process up to 100,000 birds per day. Considering his history of breaking barriers and establishing firsts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the plant will be the first and only to utilize air-chill technology and a level of automation never seen before in the Caribbean poultry industry.
Eye of the storm
It’s not a stretch to label Haskins as a poultry industry pioneer. An entrepreneur at heart, Haskins spent about a decade working at Ralston Purina before taking the leap to run an integrated broiler business in Jamaica in the mid-1980s. After establishing the operation there for several years and just before signing his first broiler contract in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert decimated Jamaica and wiped out Haskins’ operations as only a Category 5 storm could. Starting again, from scratch, Haskins rebuilt the business and saw it as a springboard to modernizing the island’s poultry operations to more closely resemble operations in industrial countries, which he did.
His next venture would see him shifting gears, and countries, founding MBA Poultry in 1998 in Tecumseh, Nebraska, which was in part the result of Haskins reimagining commercial chicken carcass chilling in the US, a process that had traditionally been achieved by immersion in chilled water. After years of tireless due diligence and studying technology all over the world, Haskins imported the technology he saw while working as an industry consultant at a poultry plant outside of Prague in the mid-1990s.
Prior to seeing air chill in action during his travels, “I didn’t even know it existed in the industry,” Haskins says. “I did know that God had taken me there to create a niche in the marketplace that would have tremendous value.” And he listened. “I knew if I could get it started, I could make my company very successful.”
And so, it was that very same air-chill technology that became the basis for his company’s “Smart Chicken” line of poultry at a renovated Campbell Soup plant he bought with about 24 poultry producers in 1998.
Despite some financial challenges and changes in ownership shares in the years that followed the startup, Haskins remained at the helm and led the growth of MBA for a decade, including adding a second processing plant in Waverly, Nebraska, in 2006, and expanding the company’s offerings to include an organic line as well as reformulating feed rations to eliminate animal byproducts throughout the supply chain. Utilizing vision grading at the Waverly plant was another first for the industry at the time. Retail distribution of Smart Chicken grew to well over 3,000 stores and annual sales topped $60 million before Haskins stepped down from his role as president in late 2007. In hindsight, Haskins’ willingness to take calculated risks and his fearless pursuit of “what could be,” defined his career in an industry dominated by formidable players.
Reflecting on his early days, going all in with a startup chicken company in Nebraska included hearing from plenty of naysayers. “I remember everybody telling me that there’s no way this can be successful,” you can’t compete against Tyson,” he says. But he learned to trust himself and the team of people around him, then and now. But that didn’t squelch critics. Processing vegetarian-fed chickens using controlled atmosphere stunning and European style, air-chill technology in the Cornhusker State, was a leap in those days, he admits. “But now the entire industry in the United States is following our path. Is that what it means to be a pioneer? I don’t know,” he says with a shrug and a smirk.
That same bold approach and entrepreneurial spirit has served him well since being hired as CEO of Kingston, Jamaica-based CB Group, a diverse food company owned by the Hendrickson family, whose roots date back four generations when the family started a bakery business, National Baking Co., which has evolved as a household name in Jamaica and well beyond. The Hendrickson’s empire now includes not only National Baking and the new poultry complex, but an existing poultry and egg production and processing operation; a pork production and processing business; and one of the largest feed companies in the Caribbean, Newport Mills. The family also has investments in the hotel/hospitality industry.
“After selling my interest in MBA and retiring, Karl Hendrickson, the owner here, invited me down to be CEO. I made the decision to come back into the workforce in 2008,” Haskins says. “I came here to create what is today a very recognized agricultural entity that helps feed the Caribbean,” he says. As part of his encore career, Haskins felt the pull to not only lead a successful company but pursue something more meaningful.
“The greatest calling in life is to be associated with feeding a population, I think,” he says, “and being trusted to not only put food in their bodies, but also feeding their children.”
Having founded MBA and leading its growth, ultimately to a company that would be an acquisition target of Tyson Foods in 2018, was affirmation of Haskins’ business acumen and proof of his ability to identify and implement innovative technologies. He’s learned that being bold has its advantages.
“If you’re first at something you don’t have to worry about being second,” Haskins says. And taking that same bold approach used at MBA and going back to Jamaica to implement it as part of integrating CB Group’s operations would be the perfect ending to Haskin’s long career in the poultry industry. “That’s the part of my legacy that I’ll be most proud of,” he says.
When he assumed his new role with CB Group in 2008, he realized many pieces were in place and recognized the value in having that head start and the potential of what could be. “I could see it from the beginning,” he says of what he says was already an established, solid asset base. “I had a lot to grow on. It wasn’t like there were a lot of parts I had to put together; they were available for me.”
As for the reception he received from the CB team at all levels, Haskins felt like the timing was just right. “I told everybody when I came, ‘it’s time for a pivot. Let’s all pivot together and look at things a little differently than how they’ve been looked at in the past.’
“I represented a direction that wasn’t complicated. It was just, ‘let’s do what we do and do it a little better; spend some money, improve some assets’ – and that’s what we went about doing.”
He’s not naïve enough to think everyone was as excited to have a new boss as he was to be one. “I’m sure there was resistance, but I think there was a common understanding that it was important to make a pivot. There’s no question that everybody was ready for a different approach, a different way.”
At that time, and still today, CB operated a chicken plant located in Kingston. Back then it was processing about 30,000 birds per day and Haskins knew it made more sense to optimize operations there before jumping into a new plant project, an endeavor that CB had on its drawing board for years before he arrived.
“Our first area of concentration was at our processing plant- fixing some of the issues there that needed to be addressed. I felt like we needed to maximize the current plant before we could truly justify a new plant. And so that’s what we went about doing.” At that time there was plenty of opportunity and space to grow at the old facility. “There was room. It needed to be managed differently, but we had room.”
Successfully streamlining operations at the existing plant, affectionately known as “Arnold Road,” where production has doubled to about 70,000 birds during Haskins’ tenure, was due in large part to his belief that a new team of locally based managers could have the biggest impact. “Jamaicans needed to be a part of this story,” Haskins says, “not people from the United States. And it will continue that way.”
The fact that the Jamaican people realize they can operate and manage the business is a vital part of CB Group’s success. “They don’t need me; and that’s a measure of my success as well. This success is going to continue,” he says, well after his retirement. The positive spirit, work ethic and loyalty are just a few of the attributes Haskins admires about the Jamaican people, including those he works shoulder to shoulder with every day. “The talent here is astounding,” Haskins says. We have many people in this company that are as dedicated as the owners and that’s hard to get. Many, many Jamaicans approach their work careers that way. That’s why we have been successful here. It was the Jamaicans who believed in our path.”
The next chapter for CB Group won’t include Haskins as CEO. “March of ’21 is my goal,” he says of his planned retirement before spilling over with laughter as if he knows better. “A lot can happen in 16 months, right?” he says while scanning the horizon of the expansive construction site from the temporary office centrally located near what will be the processing plant and the adjacently located rendering facility.
His plan is to remain in his position for a handful of months after the new processing and rendering facilities open, presumably by January 2021, and assist in addressing the unavoidable startup kinks at the new operations. The level of automation and features such as air chilling will be new to the workers moving over from the Arnold Road plant. To ensure a smooth transition, the plan is to gradually step down operations at the old facility as production at The Nest ramps up and the inevitable “teething pains” are worked out. Haskins anticipates that once the company’s directors see the finished product, they will be shocked at the roominess, especially compared to the old plant, where the production supply can no longer keep up with demand.
Feathering The Nest
Haskins calls The Nest a true international project, with 17 countries involved either directly or indirectly in its planning, design and operation. Included in the planning process was Haskins visiting many countries and touring plants all over the world during the due diligence phase to consider options for equipment suppliers and consult with poultry experts, all of which played a part in planning and logistics. The primary goal of incorporating automation technology that virtually eliminates the need for human hands to touch the birds after entering the processing area has a different primary benefit than in the US, where labor shortages are the norm. The automation-rich design of the plant will require about one-third the number of employees while processing at least 25 percent more birds, but that isn’t all. The most significant benefit is bolstering CB’s reputation among its customers. “Food safety is the driver of automation,” Haskins says. “Our quality can’t be ‘sort of’ good.” He adds: “You have to earn peoples’ business, you know. We’re asking them to trust us.”
With shipping crates situated all around the construction site holding the imported building supplies and processing equipment, pockets of workers focus on any of a number of areas of the property, which was formerly farmland used to grow sugar cane.
One of the many parts of the construction process included building of 10 solid-sided chicken houses, which served as the blueprint for the company’s contract producers. More than 10 million birds have been raised in the past four years to ensure the systems are in place to produce 100,000 birds per day. Solar panels are installed on the roofs of four chicken houses, which supply power to all 10. After growing to a target weight of 5 lbs., the birds will be slaughter ready when they are approximately 38 days old.
In early December, the foundation of the new plant was in place, in the shadow of the rendering facility, which was enclosed and being equipped with the drying and cooking technology to process poultry meal, blood, feathers and fat byproducts for export customers in the pet food industry. The rendering facility will receive the nonedible byproducts directly from the plant through two large, pressurized supply pipes connecting the two buildings.
Managing a construction project the size and scope of CB Group’s would be a challenge in the US or in any industrial country, but the complications facing Haskins and his team are compounded exponentially given Jamaica’s isolated location and fragmented infrastructure.
To help negotiate what are sometimes daily scheduling hiccups as part of building one of the poultry industry’s most sophisticated plants, Haskins took an unconventional approach by temporarily hiring Fergal Mac Mahon, global project manager at Meyn Food Processing Technology, as the project manager. Besides utilizing Meyn as the primary technology supplier for the processing plant, Haskins made the unprecedented request to borrow Mac Mahon, a 35-year employee of Meyn who made a lasting impression on him during a presentation early in the process. He joined the team in early 2018 and says the experience has been a highlight of his career, which has included working on giant plant projects in the US, Saudi Arabia and Latin America.
“I’ve seen a lot of chicken plants,” Mac Mahon says, but few that incorporate the automation and combination of technologies in one project. He realizes the construction process on such a grand scale is a marathon not a sprint, and he appreciates the value of a leader like Haskins. “Mark is a visionary,” he says. “He is a man who doesn’t easily give up on a problem.”
While many companies dedicate plenty of resources to the budgeting process and developing strategies for three-year plans, Haskins has learned to be more pragmatic and he understands the need for flexibility.
“All companies do and certainly we have goals and aspirations,” he says, but bullish planning and strategizing is not the silver bullet. “You can have the best war plan in the world but after the first shot is fired, everything changes.” In business, like in war, “If you could control all aspects, then your plans could all be successfully instituted at exactly the time that you want to. It’s more about small steps,” Haskins says. “You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time. To have a more general goal of where you want to be in three years, that’s the type of thing I want to be involved in.”
Looking as far back as his childhood, when he raised 50 heifers at the age of 15 or so, Haskins is proud that agriculture played a prominent role in his life. He says his father encouraged him to start working when he was young, establishing a work ethic and the integrity that served him well as an innovative businessman and yes, a poultry industry pioneer who made a difference.
“I don’t have to look back on life and say, ‘what if,’ he says. “I tried what I did and it turned out to be much more rewarding than I ever could have dreamed.”