Marketing meat was probably not a career that was on Emily Detwiler’s short list of dream jobs as a young girl growing up in the Midwest. But it proved to be a fruitful profession for the eager-to-learn Nebraska native, whose career path wound from the retail sector to the pork industry and most recently to the position of leading the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), as its first-ever chief executive officer. Detwiler earned a marketing degree at Drake University after her family moved to Iowa when she was growing up. She moved to Kansas City after graduating to work for a couple of years before deciding to go back to school, earning a master’s in marketing and management from the University of Missouri.

After stints working back in KC in brand management and marketing roles with American Dairy Brands and Hostess, Detwiler spent about seven years working in retail private brand marketing with Daymon Worldwide. It was there she got her first opportunity to promote some meat brands while living and working in Connecticut. Moving back to Kansas City again in about 2014, to accommodate her husband’s job, Detwiler brought with her a wide breadth of food marketing experience.

High on hogs

Thanks to some of the connections she made during those years that led her to a marketing position with Smithfield Foods Inc., starting out as senior brand manager in 2015.

“I knew a lot about marketing and a little bit about meat,” Detwiler said, “and that’s actually exactly what they needed at the time.”

She joined the company with a goal of taking a CPG approach to branding Smithfield’s commodity-based fresh pork products. For a company the size and scope of Smithfield, that meant Detwiler was the lead on almost every marketing effort, from media buying to the company’s NASCAR promotions and sponsorships in addition to leading efforts under the broad heading of barbecue.

At that time, Smithfield had begun to establish a preliminary relationship with the KCBS. Detwiler saw this as a golden opportunity for Smithfield to collaborate more and strengthen a mutually beneficial partnership. To learn more about the world of competition barbecue, Detwiler immersed herself in that arena.

“I started going to quite a few of the barbecue contests,” she said, “so that I really understood what was happening.”

Finding a KCBS competition wasn’t difficult, given the fact that the association sanctions about 500 barbecue contests each year. Detwiler said attending the events gave her a taste for the culture and gave her a chance to get to know many of the 20,000 KCBS members.

“I quickly learned, literally through feet on the street, by just going to all of these events and seeing how things work and meeting the pitmasters and talking to people. That’s when I really realized how much bigger of an opportunity it could be for Smithfield and quite frankly, for any protein brand.”

Partnering with the association was a natural fit, especially for a pork-processing company, given the fact that two of the four meats judged at all KCBS-sanctioned events are pork.

“It made a lot of sense for us to double down our efforts in barbecue so that we would ultimately build the Smithfield brands among the competitive pitmasters so that they would almost become influencers to all of their network of backyard grilling enthusiasts and start buying the Smithfield brand.”

As the partnership developed, Smithfield sponsored several high-profile pitmasters who had earned reputations for winning on the competition circuit and used their cooking credibility to pursue other endeavors, from opening restaurants to launching lines of food products and cooking gear. In 2017, the same year she was promoted to director of marketing, Detwiler started the Smokin’ with Smithfield Grant program, which involved investments from the company that increased the prize money at sanctioned events as well as providing promotional support for barbecue competitions.

“It was more of a true investment in the sport,” she said. “Obviously we were trying to build the brand and drive awareness and drive sales, but we tried to do it in a very authentic way. And I would say that is something I brought to the table by getting so involved.”

During her years working in marketing at Smithfield, Emily Detwiler attended many barbecue competitions and befriended some at the most successful competitors on the circuit.

Detwiler embraced what she calls “the spirit of barbecue,” and was inspired by the willingness of the competitors and KCBS members to share their tips, techniques and friendships. She went on to work with Smithfield to host several of its own invitational competitions, drawing some of the biggest names in barbecue and promoting its position as a leading pork processor to an influential audience. By then, Detwiler was an established part of the KCBS network and worked closely with pitmasters including Chris Lilly, Tuffy Stone and Sterling Ball.

However, when she found out the company wanted her to relocate her family to Virginia in 2019, she opted to pass on the opportunity, deciding to step down from her role and continue living in the Kansas City area.

“I had a great experience at Smithfield,” Detwiler said. “It was a ton of fun.”

The end of her tenure at Smithfield signaled a new beginning with an opportunity that dovetailed with her experience. So, when a board member with KCBS contacted Detwiler about filling the opening as the association’s new leader, she was available and interested.

“Based on everything I had done in the barbecue space to that point, they thought I would be a good fit to help drive the organization into the future,” transitioning from decades of leadership under Carolyn Wells, who co-founded KCBS with her husband Gary.

“I did a lot of things in my days at Smithfield, but I overinvested my time in barbecue. I loved it. I loved the people,” she said. “And clearly from a career perspective that ended up being a good thing for me in terms of where I am now.”

Carolyn Wells said, “Emily was the perfect fit, helping build the future for KCBS. Her prior experience in marketing strategy and branding were key, and the fact that she was already immersed in the barbecue industry and KCBS during her term with Smithfield was well known.”

KCBS gets a new pit boss

Detwiler was announced as the new CEO of the KCBS in August 2019. Little did she know that several months into the role, the 2020 competition schedule would be put on hold due to a pandemic.

“It’s been a very interesting nine months to be in this type of a position with everything happening in our world,” Detwiler said.

After joining the organization, Detwiler said she saw some opportunities to develop and grow the KCBS even more. Initially she spent time looking closely at all the programs offered by the non-profit organization and assessing the value of each of them. She hoped to identify efficiencies and streamline processes, she said. She also realized the value in operating the KCBS more like a business and made that a priority as well as growing membership (including younger people) and engaging more backyard barbecue enthusiasts to try cooking in their first competitive event.

The barbecue community is still hopeful that the annual American Royal barbecue contest will not be impacted by the pandemic. “The Royal” is regarded as the marquee competition for KCBS members and the rest of the barbecue world, held in Kansas City, Kan.

Passing the torch

Since Detwiler assumed the leadership role at KCBS, Carolyn Wells no longer deals with the daily business operations after decades at the helm.

“When I was named chief executive officer, I think it was almost a little bit of a relief for her,” Detwiler said of her longtime friend.

“She’s still very much part of the organization,” Detwiler said, adding that Wells is an ideal ambassador to promote the Kansas City barbecue culture as well as the broader barbecue industry.

“She has essentially transitioned into a role of historian and storyteller, which honestly, she is delighted about.”

Wells said she worked well beyond the traditional retirement age and now she looks forward to putting the spotlight on the barbecue community.

“The ‘People of BBQ’ or our membership and friends are a family,” Wells said. “These folks are the best people in the world and each has a story worth relating. I want to share that passion, enthusiasm and dedication to our favorite food group and honor their achievements.”

Some might say Wells got out just in time, given the timing of the pandemic.

“It’s probably one of the most challenging times to come into an organization like this,” Detwiler said, and when COVID-19 hit, that increased the challenge exponentially.

Her first year as CEO has been a new adventure almost every day, Detwiler said.

“I will tell you that my role is very fluid and quite frankly, I like it that way. I feel like my role is like that of a business owner who’s really trying to drive strategy and future thinking; to make sure that we’re in a position of strength for the future.”

Wells said Detwiler’s impact and leadership ability since joining KCBS have already become apparent, despite plenty of unforeseen challenges.

“Emily has had a dramatic impact on operations, marketing, and planning. Processes have been reviewed and streamlined. All revenue streams have been reviewed, assessed and new opportunities have been planned,” Wells said. “Marketing and planning for attracting a younger audience and varied types of events is powerful and managerial and relationship-building skills are invaluable to KCBS. What more could a 35-year-old, non-profit hope for? She’s found a home.”