Considering the history of Jay Jandrain’s family in meat processing, and his lifelong exposure to food production, it is not surprising that today, he leads one of the most iconic companies in the meat and poultry industry, Mount Olive, NC-based Butterball LLC.
He’s been chief executive officer and president of Butterball for almost two-and-a-half years – since December 2018 – but he’s worked for the company for 19 years. As leader of the world’s largest turkey processor and producer, Jandrain is committed to transforming the company and the turkey industry away from an over-reliance on selling only whole birds for Thanksgiving and maybe Christmas – and marketing turkey in various forms as a year-round protein product.
But when Jandrain graduated from Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, with a degree in food science, he wasn’t sure at all that he wanted to work in the meat and poultry industry.
“I was born in Green Bay, Wis., and my father, my grandfather and great-grandfather all worked in the meat industry,” he said. “My grandfather worked in a meat market in New Franklin, Wis.”
His grandfather helped make sausage and hot dogs for two iconic organizations in Green Bay – the Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field, where the hot dogs and sausages were sold. But the meat market went out of business in 1968.
“I was a baby, only a few years old at the time, when we moved to Waco, Texas, where I was raised. And since my dad worked in a meat plant there, I began working at a meat processing company when I was 15 years old, while I was in high school. The company was called Plantation Foods, which eventually was acquired by Cargill. But there I was, every summer during my high school and college years. Then I worked there full time after I graduated from college.”
But Jandrain was smart enough to mix two majors together very well in college – food and business.
“To tell the truth, I wasn’t particularly interested in going into the meat business,” he said. “I got different offers from companies in different industries. I was out of the meat industry for a short time – I worked in a fuel distribution business, which was operated by my wife’s family.”
But he ultimately made the decision to move back into the meat and poultry sector. He worked in several sales, marketing and R&D management roles at Plantation Foods and later at Cargill. From there he moved to Carolina Turkey.
Meat industry commitment
“At the time, Carolina Turkey was looking for an R&D person,” Jandrain said. “R&D was a good place to start a career, a good opportunity to get involved in technical sales and sales work in general. You learn and see where and how the products are made.”
In 2002, he joined Carolina Turkey as director of research and development. Eventually, the company became Butterball LLC when Butterball was acquired from ConAgra in 2006. Since then, he’s held numerous roles with the company, including vice president of deli sales, vice president of research and development, vice president of integrated business strategy, and executive vice president of sales.
Before becoming Butterball’s CEO and president, succeeding Kerry Doughty who stepped down for health reasons, he served as chief operating officer for the company. In that role his responsibilities included overseeing plant operations; corporate purchasing; transportation and warehousing; supply and demand planning; corporate engineering; and research and development.
It’s not that common in the meat industry for people to stay with one company for most of their career, learning every facet of the business, including the culture of a company’s operation. And that’s exactly what Jandrain has done.
“I’ve been in the poultry and meat industry for 32 years, including 19 at Butterball. But this pattern of remaining with a single business, especially in this industry isn’t as prevalent as it once was,” he pointed out. “The reason for that is there’s more consolidation in this industry than there used to be. Companies today get acquired more frequently by other businesses.
“We had been a foodservice business. Now there was an opportunity to become heavily involved in retail. Also, our biggest advantage is the role of our brand – the best-known turkey brand in the world.”
Jandrain’s business philosophy for the company is very process and data-driven – “probably because of my food science background – that’s a big part of what we do. That includes analyzing data that we can use in satisfying our consumers. Our strength is satisfying our consumers and retailers. A core value for me that I apply to this company is continuous improvement – we can always be better. We establish the best process we can, and then take every opportunity to improve it.”
Another core value Jandrain practices is sharing as much as possible with his associates. “They hear not just from their direct supervisors, but also me. We use a team approach. It makes many people want to be a part of Butterball,” he said.
The rise of turkey
Yet there are other critical issues Jandrain is dealing with as Butterball CEO – the changes he is making to make turkey more of a major player in the food protein industry, and the continuing challenges to his company and the entire food industry posed by COVID-19.
“Turkey has become a value-added product to be enjoyed by consumers all around the year. We’ve gone beyond selling fresh and frozen whole birds at Thanksgiving and maybe Christmas, although those products and holidays are still critical and a very important part of our business,” he said.
“When it comes to turkey, customers want a lot more. There is a shift from red meat to turkey. That’s a great opportunity for us. The reasons for this have to do with health, a lower-fat product, and because some consumers, for various reasons, move to turkey. Our turkey burgers have been very successful,” he noted.
Jandrain points to the growing popularity of turkey bacon, ground turkey for chili and meatballs, and smaller parts of a turkey, including breasts, tenderloins, legs and thighs. There are turkey cuts, turkey burgers, turkey sausages, deli meat, packaged lunch meat and turkey jerky.
“It’s true, at one time, people only thought about turkey for the holidays, at one time of the year,” he admitted. “But our goal has been to make turkey an everyday product, not just a specialty product for certain times of the year.
“Beyond whole birds just for the holiday and maybe deli meats, we realized consumers would like turkey products frequently. Breakfast sausages, ground turkey for various types of dishes – all this goes to insights we gained at the company as we were looking into expanded possibilities.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and continuing into 2021, some of those shifts are taking place sooner rather than later. “There was a shift in demand this year by consumers for different sizes of protein meals, because of restrictions in sizes of families and groups at the holidays,” he said. “So, we saw an opportunity for smaller turkey products, like breasts, legs and thighs, instead of only whole birds.”
He pointed out there was a spike in demand for turkey in the 1980s and even in more recent decades, but that growth has been flat for some time. But this is changing, due to the export of turkey and turkey products, mostly raw commodities.
Jandrain pointed out that turkey being sold for different occasions, or no occasion, makes a difference in the demand for fresh versus frozen products.
“Much of the turkey we sell at the holidays, including whole birds, are frozen. But our retail products, including value-added products, are mostly fresh. For our foodservice customers, some products are frozen, but most are fresh,” he said.
He also pointed to the increasing amount of turkey that is exported from the United States indicating growth for the industry.
Concerning Butterball’s efforts in dealing with COVID-19, Jandrain said the company is doing everything in its power to keep its plants operating, and producing the food Americans count on, during the pandemic.
“I am proud of the efforts of our team members during this pandemic. The health of our team members is essential to this mission.
“In recent months, we have made efforts at all of our plants to ‘flatten the curve,’ including enhancing our already-strict sanitation protocols on the production floor, deploying multi-daily cleanings in common areas, using greater social distancing measures, implementing body temperature screenings for anyone entering the facilities and providing surgical-style face masks that team members are required to wear inside the facilities,” Jandrain said.
He said the company’s rate of infections is going down, thanks to mitigation strategies the company is using.
“We implemented many safety measures through the pandemic, but I think the vaccine is the strongest tool we have to protect the health and safety of our workforce against COVID-19,” he said.
“We began vaccinating team members in February as people became eligible for vaccination and as doses became available, and we continue to hold on-site clinics at our production facilities,” he explained. “Our goal is to provide information and resources for our employees to make the best-informed decision for themselves and their families, to make it as easy as possible for those who want the shot to be able to get it, and ultimately, to get as many of our team members vaccinated as possible.”
The company has six production facilities across North Carolina, Arkansas and Missouri, and each state has a different prioritization schedule for vaccine distribution, but Butterball’s front-line workforce has been prioritized in all of the states.
“Our teams have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, doing their part to keep food on all our tables, and we were very happy to see that reflected in the prioritization,” he said.
Production strategies also had to be shifted. “The major shift away from foodservice is stopping and foodservice is gradually coming back. As you know, there had been a big shift to retail. We converted some operations to focus on retail, which is different processing equipment, that can’t be changed overnight. Some product line demand doubled. We didn’t shut down plants, we ran them slower for a while, but they are now up to full speed.”
Jandrain also addressed the company’s sustainability efforts and accomplishments. He said Butterball has made positive strides and under his leadership, the commitment will continue into the future.
“Our environmental footprint for producing our products was reduced, including a 7.9% reduction in waste per pound of product produced; 3.4% increase in recycled material from all waste generated; a 0.4% reduction in electricity used, with continued upgrading to LEDs across our plants, and adoption of new green initiatives throughout Butterball. The company also has an industry-leading animal care and welfare program, including certification through American Humane.”
Also important to Jandrain, and to Butterball’s operations, is its workforce. Team member training has been expanded, with an increased focus on diversity and inclusion when it comes to hiring and corporate philanthropy. The company has also set up experiential learning programs as a unique path for career development at Butterball.
“We hold ourselves to excellence when it comes our commitment to responsible practices,” Jandrain said. “Most of all, our people – our team members who work at Butterball – need and deserve to be recognized. Unlike in other types of work, they can’t work remotely. So, they deserve a lot of credit for what they do every day.”