Earl Campbell, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson are best known for tucking pigskins under their chiseled arms and running over linebackers on Sunday afternoons in the National Football League. For the past several years, though, they’ve gained names for themselves by running their own companies in the meat and poultry industry.
Campbell is president of Earl Campbell Meat Products in Austin, Texas; Walker is CEO and owner of Renaissance Man Food Services in Savannah, Ga., and Jackson is co-founder and co-president of N’Genuity Enterprises in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"I knew one of these days I was going to be doing more than running the football," says the 54-yearold Campbell.
Campbell, Walker and Jackson aren’t the only former professional athletes who have ventured into the meat and poultry industry. There’s also Nolan Ryan, one of Major League Baseball’s greatest pitchers, who’s now owner of Nolan Ryan’s All-Natural Beef in Huntsville, Texas. The list of jocks competing in the meat industry also includes Greg Norman, who made his living hitting a smaller white ball (and still does on the PGA Senior Tour) around the greatest golf courses in the world. Norman has his own beef product brand, the Greg Norman Signature Wagyu Beef line, which is marketed by Australian beef producer, AAco.
Some may wonder what Bo and the others know about the meat and poultry industry. Some might say they’re just using their celebrity status to sell everything from steaks to sausages to make a lot of bread.
Jackson doesn’t understand why others label ex-jocks as one-dimensional people. Walker speaks for all of them when he says he wants to be treated like a serious businessman, not a star, when it comes to his career in this industry. "People are surprised I’m doing this," the 47-year-old Walker says. "But I’m having fun."
How did they get here?
How did three Heisman Trophy winners end up in the meat and poultry industry? Campbell, Walker and Jackson all won the prestigious award for their rushing exploits in the college ranks before starring in the NFL.
Campbell, who played most of his career with the Houston Oilers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was known for his bruising running style. The NFL Hall of Famer didn’t run away from defenders as much as he ran over them. Walker, who spent most of his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1980s, punished defenders with a similar style, as did Jackson who played with the Oakland Raiders in the late 1980s. Jackson also played Major League Baseball for three teams, spending most of his career with the Kansas City Royals.
Campbell retired from the NFL in 1985 and began Earl Campbell Meat Products about five years later. Walker retired in 1997 and began his company in 2000. Jackson, 46, retired from baseball in 1994 and co-founded N’Genuity Enterprises, which established a foodservice division, in 2001.
None of them joined the meat and poultry industry on a whim. They all had a distinct interest in the food industry even during their playing days.
Campbell has enjoyed making sausage and cooking on the grill for years. An acquaintance was so impressed with Campbell’s sausage recipe that he shopped it around to meat processors. Campbell didn’t think much of it, but the next thing he knew he had a co-packing deal with J&B Sausage Co. in Waelder, Texas, about 25 miles southeast of Austin.
Walker has a similar story. His business got its start with his mother’s chicken-breading recipes. ConAgra Foods liked Christine Walker’s recipes so much that it began producing products based on them. So did Tyson Foods Inc.
Jackson’s late mother, Florence, taught him to cook when he was a child. Jackson says his first passion before sports was cooking. It’s no surprise he ended up in the industry.
The same is true for the 62-yearold Nolan Ryan, a National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher who played with the New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers in his splendid 27-year career, which includes seven no-hitters. While his company is about nine years old, Ryan has been in the cattle business for 35 years. Ryan, who retired from baseball in 1993, says his first passion was raising cattle.
The 54-year-old Norman says he had a lifelong interest in the beef business, which started when he worked on cattle stations as a young man. He says he developed a commercial interest in opening a market for Australian beef. In 2006, Norman teamed with AAco to launch his high-end foodservice line, which was made available to consumers in June through the Internet.
Scouting their products
Earl Campbell Meat Products specializes in smoked sausages. Its biggest seller is the spicy Earl Campbell’s Hot Link.
"That’s the product that helps us keep our doors open every day," Campbell says, adding the chicken, beef and pork sausage is hot, but not too hot. This fall, the company introduced a new variety of Hot Links – Hot ‘n’ Cheddar.
Campbell credits H-E-B, a San Antonio-based grocery store chain with more than 300 locations in Texas and Mexico, and Brookshire Grocery Co., a Tyler, Texas-based chain with more than 150 supermarkets in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, with spurring his company’s success. Both chains agreed to sell Campbell’s products while the company was in its infancy. H-E-B’s and Brookshire’s commitment sent a message to other retailers that if the products were good enough for them, they were good for other retailers, Campbell says. Hence, Campbell’s products are now in Kroger supermarkets, Sam’s Club outlets and Wal-Mart stores.
Earl Campbell Meat Products had about $10 million in sales in 2008. Despite the tough economy, Campbell says 2009 has been a decent year.
"There’s plenty of room to grow, and we want to grow," Campbell says. "We want to see Earl Campbell sausage in every little hole or crack that we can get it in."
Campbell says his products wouldn’t have taken off if it wasn’t for the team he developed to market them.
"Outside of having a good product, it always takes a team," says Campbell, who cites a football analogy to make his point. "I can’t take all of the credit because somebody has to throw the blocks and somebody has to catch the passes. People have made me look good."
Campbell says his sons – Tyler and Christian – have begun to play integral roles in the business. "They are the front guns now," he adds.
Walker’s company had about $70 million in 2008 sales. Chicken accounts for almost 75 percent of the company’s revenues. Renaissance Man also sells precooked ribs, bacon and other items under the Herschel’s Famous 34 and H. Walker Foods brands. Most of the company’s meat and poultry business is in foodservice, but Walker wants to do more business in retail. Walker says sales "are coming around" this year, despite the economy.
Walker says a home-style chicken strip is the company’s best-selling item.
"I’ll compare it to any chicken strip in the industry," he says. "I think it’s the best chicken strip out there."
About three years ago, Walker embarked on a joint venture with privately held Simmons Poultry Farms. He co-owns a chicken processing plant in Siloam, Ark., with Simmons.
Walker credits ConAgra and Tyson Foods for helping him get his business started by co-packing his products. Walker says he wanted to have his own plant to learn more about the business, not to mention gain the cost savings of producing his own products.
Walker counts his blessings when he speaks of his football career. He’s thankful for the millions he made because it has enabled him to do things like start Renaissance Man and provide jobs to friends and family members.
"I like that I’m creating jobs for others," says Walker, noting he doesn’t draw a salary and donates 15 percent of his company’s earnings to charity.
Jackson’s N’Genuity offers a variety of products under its own brand name and Jackson’s name, including ground beef, cooked meats, deli meats, portion-controlled steaks, chicken, turkey, veal and seafood. Some of the products are based on Jackson’s recipes.
In 2005, N’Genuity struck a deal with meat-industry giant Cargill Meat Solutions of Wichita, Kan., to produce and jointly market products for U.S. government, commercial, retail and foodservice customers. N’Genuity also works with Sysco Corp., the nation’s largest foodservice supplier, to distribute its products to restaurants and institutions throughout the country. N’Genuity’s sales were $70 million in 2008.
The company touts Jackson’s cooking prowess – not this football skills – in company literature. "From our perfect cuts of prime rib to our extensive menu of individually quickfrozen products, every item must meet Bo’s personal approval," the literature states.
Ryan says he spent years trying to find a consistent, high-quality steak, but couldn’t. "I finally decided the only way I could guarantee beef that was tender and good every time was to start my own brand," he says.
Ryan operates a cow-calf operation in Texas. "Our steers are fed for the Nolan Ryan program, but that doesn’t mean they’re accepted because only about 23 percent meet the specifications," he says.
Nolan Ryan All-Natural Beef copacks with a few processors, including Selma, Calif.-based Harris Ranch Beef. If there’s one thing Ryan demands from his packing partners, it’s consistency. He wants consumers to know what they’re getting when they purchase his products.
"Consistency is what we strive for, not only in taste but in tenderness," Ryan says.
In September, Ryan introduced a line of smoked sausages featuring an all-natural casing enclosing a perfectly seasoned, coarsely ground, allbeef smoked sausage.
Ryan’s business is regional, with retailers in Texas and Louisiana and foodservice customers in Texas, Louisiana, Arizona and New Mexico. But the company has sold its products to customers in 44 states, thanks to the Internet. The company, whose sales were $18 million in 2008, aims to become a national brand. To do that, Ryan believes it’s important to keep up with consumption trends and retail buying habits.
"If you don’t pay attention with what the consumer wants, it’s going to pass you by," Ryan says. "It’s important to be on the edge and offer consumers what they’re looking for. With the technology out there, things change much faster than they used to."
Norman hopes to drive more Americans to discover Australian beef. There are plans to extend the Norman line of Wagyu beef to include patties, sliders, franks and portioned steaks at retail.
"AAco is Australia’s oldest company, headquartered in my home state of Queensland, so a partnership made sense," says Norman, whose products are served in fine restaurants, clubs and resorts throughout the United States.
"We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made in penetrating the foodservice channel," Norman says.
Norman believes Australian beef, specifically the Wagyu line, is the best around.
"AAco is the world leader in breeding Wagyu – the genetics it employs in this process are second to none," he says. "The standards under which this beef is processed and packed all follow industry best practice."
Norman says each sub-primal is graded individually on the Japanese grading scale for marbling, color and density, among other attributes. This score is printed on the original packaging, so chefs know the product they ordered is the product they received, ensuring consistency. "The marble score is perhaps our most important quality-assurance standard," Norman says.
Just like on the football field, where Campbell shed his share of blood, sweat and tears, it has taken a lot of hard work to get his product recognized.
"You have to be willing to spend your Saturdays doing demos," says Campbell, who has done his share of them at various retail markets.
Campbell, who says he never had an agent when he played football, says he likes to make his own decisions, for better or worse. "I’ve met some great people [in the meat industry], and I’ve met people who will tell you one thing and do another," Campbell says. "It’s the same as it was in football."
Walker has found the meat and poultry industry to be very competitive, and he’s impressed with its players.
"There are a lot of great poultry companies out there, and I respect them a great deal," he says. "I had to humble myself a lot to learn this industry, and I’ve learned a lot l in nine years. A lot of good people have helped me."
That said, Walker says some industry people who see him for the first time are surprised he owns his own poultry company.
"They just assume I’m endorsing someone’s company or working for somebody and that I don’t know what I’m talking about," Walker says. "That’s insulting."
Jackson can empathize with Walker. Bo knows many people think professional athletes can only score touchdowns or hit home runs. Jackson says he wants to be known as a savvy businessman, not just a good athlete.
Since joining the business, Jackson has been eager to learn about it. He has spent time in meat plants and understands, for example, what it means to develop and maintain a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point program. He has learned what it takes to bring meat and poultry products from the farm to the table.
"If you see anything out there with Bo Jackson’s name on it, or an N’Genuity label on it, trust me 100 percent that I know what’s in the package, and I know what it took to get [the package] to that point," Jackson says.
While he’s a veteran on the producing side, Ryan says he has learned a lot on the processing side, such as what it takes to get meat products approved for the retail and foodservice segments.
"There are a lot of moving parts, and it has been a big learning curve for me," Ryan says. "But it’s something I enjoy because I have a passion for the business."
Even though he believes his Wagyu line is superior, what Norman has learned about the U.S. meat and poultry industry has impressed him.
"The U.S. beef market is supported by a very dynamic industry that effectively serves the many lifestyles of beef consumers," he says. "The industry is very committed to food safety, animal welfare, the environment and societal contribution."
What’s in a name?
Norman, who once spent 331 weeks as the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, believes branded beef is the way to go in the United States. That’s not surprising, considering how well Norman has branded his "Shark" image and subsequent product lines of clothing and wine.
"In the United States, every product fights for a competitive point of difference," Norman says. "Sometimes the differences can be infinitesimal, unless a strong brand emerges as a category leader. For someone who has spent most of his adult life building a branded business, it is certainly the way to go."
But Norman and the others know a brand name – even if it’s of a celebrity ex-athlete – doesn’t mean anything if the brand’s product doesn’t perform. Ryan says his name might get people to try his products – once. "But if they don’t have a good experience, they’re not going to try them again," he adds.
Walker realizes his celebrity status will only get his business so far.
"I must have quality products," he says. "I also have to be competitive with price."
Campbell agrees with Walker and Ryan. Thankfully for him, however, Campbell says he has gained a name for his sausage products.
"I went from being No. 34 of the Houston Oilers to people saying, ‘Hey, there goes Earl Campbell – he makes some good hot links,’ " Campbell says.
Larry Aylward is a freelance writer from Cleveland.