Bear Creek Smokehouse will celebrate its 80th anniversary this year. For all of those years the Shoults family has owned and operated it. Robbie Shoults’ great grandfather, representing the first of five generations, purchased the 1,500 acres where the family farm, plant, retail store, catering headquarters, event space and multiple generations of the Shoults family reside. He told Robbie’s grandfather he could have the land if he worked it. Everyday Robbie’s grandfather traveled by horse to the Piney Woods area outside of Marshall, Texas, to clear the land. Ever since then, the family farm and the meat business on the land have remained in the Shoults family.
“I’m third generation and then my son, Hunter, fourth generation, is the plant manager,” said Robbie Shoults, co-owner. Robbie’s mother, Brenda Shoults, is the other co-owner, at Bear Creek Smokehouse. “My daughter [Krysta Shoults Coleman] is also fourth generation and acts as a buyer for the general store and helps run it. We have grandkids in and out of the store all the time, so on any given day you can catch four generations in there at one time. It’s pretty cool.”
All in the family
In addition to parents, children and spouses, in-laws and cousins complete the total of 16 family members that work at Bear Creek Smokehouse. Many family members also live on the property, and have for generations. Shoults’ grandfather divided the property between his three children and gave some of it to Robbie and his cousin.
“My dad has two sisters, Becky and Nancy, that live on the property, they’re about a mile from me,” Shoults said. “My mom is still in the old home place that my great granddad built. My dad was actually born in the bedroom my mom sleeps in. My son Hunter is about two miles back in on the place. My daughter Krysta lives in Marshall and drives out every day. We’re a hunting family, we love hunting out here on the property, we’ve got all the cattle out here and it’s laid back. It’s just a little slice of heaven to us.”
With the higher number of family members involved in the day-to-day operations of Bear Creek Smokehouse, there’s bound to be disagreements when decisions on business matters arise. For certain decisions, Bear Creek will default to those with expertise in the area the decision affects.
Robbie and Hunter recently took a trip to Chicago to look at two different companies’ slicers. Because Hunter is the plant manager, Robbie will consult with him and the two of them will decide on the purchase. However, other decisions call for different strategies. Each decision is unique.
“We’ll try to include my mom and my daughter, my wife and whoever else because I would love hearing everyone’s perspective on something when we get ready to make a move to do something different, whether it be introducing a new product, the possibility of opening another location or something like that,” Shoults said. “We all need to listen to everybody’s input because it does affect everybody, all the family members.”
The Bear Creek family stays tight no matter the obstacle. It’s an approach to family business that sees the family as the most important thing. The business exists as a context the family operates in. The opinions of family members differ within and outside of the business, but the family remains tight knit either way.
“I think the main thing is we still all get together and enjoy meals together with my mom, myself and my wife, Tracy, and all of our kids and our grandkids,” Shoults said. “I think it’s all about just staying tight outside the business as well, not necessarily in the business. We’re tight outside the business. I think it helps you improve relationships when it comes to being under the roof of the business. I’m just so thankful all my kids and my wife and everybody just has such a strong work ethic.”
He offers a quote that hangs on the wall of his office describing his feelings about his family and the business they all operate together, “Happiness is getting to go to work every day with the ones you love the most.”
Traditional training, succession
Many family-owned-and-operated companies follow a certain set of rules and criteria for family members. Some require family members to attend college and then go work for a different company before joining the family business. Bear Creek approaches family members coming to work at the company differently. No family member need fulfill any requirements prior to joining the team, but they must bring a strong work ethic.
“I’ll tell you what,” Shoults said. “If the kids grow up working for our company, they’ve been put through the ringer, I promise you. They don’t need to go work for somebody else, although I don’t think it’s bad at all, but you know all of my kids had a Bear Creek education when they were growing up, and I did as well.”
Neither Shoults, his father nor grandfather have college educations. His son, Hunter, attended college for short period, but soon discovered he preferred to run the plant on his experience, work the farm and further his education on-the-job.
“He came to me and Tracy and said, ‘Dad, I really don’t think school is for me,’” Shoults said. “I said, ‘well son, why don’t you come back to Bear Creek, and we can continue your education right there.’”
This attitude plays a role in the future of the company. Family members want to work at Bear Creek, and the company as a collective wants them to work there. Work ethic has never caused a problem and there’s always work to be done. Although Shoults does admit that a succession plan is a good idea.
“It’s something that’s been talked about over the years,” Shoults said. “There’s always room for somebody else to go to work. We don’t have anything formal, but it’s probably something to work on. As we get tied up with day-to-day operations and get busy, sometimes we don’t tend to some of those important things like we should.”
Bear Creek pays employees, whether family or otherwise, salaries commensurate with title, level of responsibility, etc. The company will distribute bonuses based on profits for the year and the individual, their contribution to the company and what they do.
“We’ve got a lot of quality people that we try to treat like family helping us run this place,” Shoults said.
Bear Creek’s family advantage lies in willing employees, family and non-family included, willing to work hard. When the catering team needs help with something at the on-site event center, opened October of 2020, Shoults only has to let the people know and someone looking for a little extra money always steps up. And sometimes it’s immediate family doing the stepping up.
“My wife will jump in there, I’ll jump in there if we’ve got multiple caterings at the same time,” Shoults said. “We’ll jump in there and cook food or whatever it takes to get the job done and make it happen.”
Last year the 46,000-square-foot processing facility produced a little over 2 million lbs total of poultry, pork and beef. The 16,000-square-foot general store, catering business and regular events hosting between 300 and 1,000 people continue to draw shoppers, tourists and all-around fans of the business to the grounds and Bear Creek Smokehouse. But Robbie Shoults is an entrepreneur and processor of quality meat at heart.
In addition to everything else going on at the Bear Creek Farm, Shoults raises cattle, and does all the additional work that raising cattle entails. He often starts his mornings on the land away from his office. He and Hunter might unload steel to add on to a barn for equipment storage or cube the cows and put out hay while conducting business on his phone.
“It’s such a great life,” he said.
He shared a dream of one day feeding out his cattle, the farm contains about 300 head with calves every year, to take to slaughter. He wants to bring them back to Bear Creek to break down the carcasses on site and sell the beef to Bear Creek customers.
“We have got so much walk-in traffic at our store we want to go right from farm to table with our beef,” Shoults said. “We would just sell it retail, we would never be big enough to wholesale any of it, but I really think there’s a demand for beef from people who want to know where it comes from and how it’s been treated and that sort of thing. I’m really looking forward to getting that off the ground and I’ve got a big den of calves right now from last year. That’s my intent for them.”
The Bear Creek family bond runs strong through the five generations of the Shoults family and remains at the core of not only the success of the business, but more importantly the commitment to stay together and work together.
“Everybody’s got a great work ethic and that pays off,” Shoults said. “The other thing that I never want to leave out is that my granddad and dad worked with sweat rolling down their backs for a long many years and didn’t reap any benefits off of this. So, what we’re doing now is building a great company off the foundation they laid years ago.”