Growing up in the small town of Robinson, Ill., Sean Holmer planned to become a veterinarian. But an e-mail from the Animal Sciences department at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign would take him in a different direction.

Early in his sophomore year, Holmer found himself needing a job. At that time, the meat-science lab was hiring students for part-time work. His advisor worked out of the same building and Holmer thought it would be a good opportunity to work in familiar surroundings, so he signed up.

“As I began putting in more hours, I got to know some of the professors who worked out of the meat science lab,” Holmer says. He also began to like the work he was performing. He was part of the cleaning crew; he harvested animals. He fabricated, cut and did processing. He would later become an intern at Smithfield Foods.

So, what began as a means of supporting himself through college turned into his intellectual passion. Today, he is Dr. Sean Holmer, manager of research and development for Smithfield Packing – not Dr. Sean Holmer, DVM.

“I could have gotten an e-mail from the horticulture department, and I might have chosen that, but I happened to get the one from the meat-science lab first,” Holmer says.

After earning his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in the university’s Animal Sciences program, Holmer decided to work in the industry instead of academia or for government. He began his career with Smithfield at the company’s Clinton, NC, facility as an R&D manager over fresh-meats research. He researched hog genetics and evaluated genetic lines. He reviewed on-farm studies and how the findings impacted meat quality at the plant level. He also worked with new product development from a fresh value-added perspective, along with ways to develop new bacon items.

He worked at the Clinton facility for 18 months when a position became available for an R&D manager for product and process improvements at the company’s Smithfield, Va., location. He moved to Virginia 18 months ago to take the job.

“Since I’ve moved up here, Smithfield has made a commitment to improve the R&D team and focus on the customer experience,” Holmer says.

He’s talking about Smithfield’s Innovation Center, which he helped open and now oversees. The facility has allowed the R&D team to visit with customers and co-develop products. The center also gives the R&D team the ability to engage in new product development that researchers may not have had the opportunity to do before the facility was built, Holmer says.

As he strives to improve Smithfield’s products and bring new items to consumers, Holmer also has ambitions to be a better leader. “I want to make sure that my team and I finish the year strongly so that we have momentum moving into the next fiscal year,” he says. “From a long-term standpoint, I really want to work on development of my team here at Smithfield, and I really want to focus on my own personal development as a manager. I want to manage my people better so that when there’s an issue or a problem, we’re the people they come to and address it."