Poised For Growth
From family values to a quality promise, the third-generation leader looks forward and back.
When my grandfather, E.M. Helgeson, started our family business as St. Cloud Hatcheries in 1926, he never could have imagined the positive, long-term impact of that decision. At a time when life was slower, day-old chicks were sold via catalog and delivered to area famers by U.S. Post. So how did we evolve from the chick business to the meat chicken business? And how did it happen in Minnesota of all places? The truth is that every turn in the road of our company history has kept us on the path less traveled—innovating and differentiating in order to grow.
My grandfather knew that to compete with hundreds of seasonal hatcheries, he had to differentiate his chicks. First, he changed the name of his hatchery to Jack Frost and quickly gained a reputation for supplying healthy, hardy chicks. By the end of World War II there was a surplus in the egg business, and my grandfather wanted to liquidate. My father, Don, and his brother, Jerry, saw an opportunity in the up-and-coming broiler business—chickens raised for meat—in the South. Raising chickens for meat on a larger scale in Minnesota’s harsh climate wasn’t (and still isn’t) an easy proposition, yet they purchased the business from my grandfather in the 1950s and continued down the road less traveled.
The hardworking fiber of Midwestern farmers was well known to my dad and uncle—they knew they’d have ready-partners to help raise the birds. They also knew they’d need to develop an efficient operation, given the higher input costs. Barns built in Minnesota required a higher level of sophistication to withstand weather extremes, and necessities like heat are more expensive up north.
My father tackled the challenges in two ways: a unique, multi-year grower contract, and a vision of becoming a fully-integrated operation. Under the grower arrangement, the company provided chicks, paid for inputs (heat, bedding, feed) and delivered a steady monthly income.
My father treats family farmers as “the bread and butter of our company.” This type of relationship may explain why the average tenure of our growers is significantly higher than what’s experienced throughout the industry. Chicken companies commonly pay farmers on a flock-to-flock basis, so growers are able to raise chickens for multiple companies. Nearly half of our 350 family farm partners have been working with our company for more than 20 years and 51 of those partners have been with us for more than 30 years. Many of these same family farm operations supply our company with the good Minnesota corn and soybean meal we feed our chickens.
My father extended his philosophy of controlling quality inputs at the farm level to every level of our integrated business growth. A joint venture with Armour in the early 1980s (purchased in 1983) gave us processing, marketing and selling capabilities. This helped us run our business in a more efficient and quality-driven manner. In 1993, we purchased Arcadia Fryers and a processing facility in Luverne, Minn., to further expand our capabilities to meet our customers’ deli, foodservice and value-added product needs.
With strong confidence in product quality and business efficiency, we began building brand equity for our chicken products in the retail marketplace. The Gold’n Plump® brand was launched in 1978 with a series of revolutionary ad campaigns, including the infamous parachuting chickens, “It’s a mighty meaty chicken” and, more recently, “Get vocal about local” which focuses on our family farm partners. Much of this innovation and growth directly stems from my father’s willingness to meet new challenges. It has also provided many opportunities to give back to the communities in which we live and work.
My father has always said, “With privilege comes responsibility.” While there aren’t big margins in the highly cyclical chicken industry, we give back what we can in time, talent and donations. Our company has participated in the Minnesota Keystone Program for more than 20 years. Recognized for annually giving five percent of our pre-tax profits to charitable causes, we focus on donating chicken to area food banks. Just last year we provided 4 million meals of chicken to families in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
But we wouldn’t be able to give back without our most valuable asset—our people. Our company is made-up of people who care about the quality of their work and are passionate about what they do. We invest in our people—more than 95% of our 1,600 team members received training in 2011—and they invest in us. For example, last year was one of the most challenging on record for the chicken industry. Record-high feed costs, escalating fuel prices and oversupply resulting in low market pricing created a perfect storm, and several companies in our industry did not survive. By engaging our team in continuous improvement efforts, however, we gained capacity, improved efficiencies and grew offerings that included convenient, healthier products such as seasoned chicken breasts and lean brats and sausages. We also improved operations and enhanced our offerings to address evolving consumer concerns, reducing carbon emissions from the previous year and achieving a third-party animal welfare certification through the American Humane Certified® Farm Program for our Just BARE® chicken. These achievements, in light of a challenging year for the chicken industry, make me proud, but the fact that our team worked together to meet those challenges is a source of pride beyond words.
We have grown, changed and thrived over the past 86 years, and have no plans of slowing down. Our company is poised for future growth, having recently completed two major plant expansions in our Wisconsin and Minnesota facilities and a waste water treatment and reclamation facility upgrade, each with state-of-the-art equipment. We understand that internal and external alignment will strengthen our focus and take our company to the next level, our company has engaged team members across the entire organization to develop a new mission statement and a new dedication to healthy food, families and farms.
With this vision, combined with our national distribution, we look forward to a future of making premium quality chicken from the Midwest the first choice for family dinner tables, all while taking a road less traveled.