Evolving To Meet The Needs Of A Hungry Planet

Source: Connect Business Magazine

By: Jane Laskey – 5/24/2021

When the phone rang on Nov. 3, 2012, Glenn Stolt had no idea how much his life was about to change. It was a Saturday morning, the beginning of the weekend. At that time, Stolt was the vice president and CFO at Christensen Farms. He liked his job. He had two years at Christensen Farms under his belt and the company was in a good place.

The news was not good.

While hunting in Missouri with family and friends, Bob Christensen, the founder and CEO of Christensen Farms, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. Everything at Christensen Farms was about to change.

“Bob was the icon,” Stolt said. “The view of many people externally was that all decisions ran through Bob’s office. With his sudden death, we realized that many people might think, ‘What in the world is going to happen?’”

Amid the grief and chaos, the Christensen family and company leadership put a plan in place that would help the company heal and move forward. One of their first steps was to appoint Stolt as interim president and CEO.

It was an interesting choice. Stolt was one of the few members of the leadership team that had not grown up in the pork industry. What he brought to the table was business savvy and decades of corporate experience.

“Sitting here now eight-plus years after the fact, that decision was the right one,” Stolt said. “It pulled the team together with a common purpose, but it also added a level of diversity in experience and background that has created thus far a winning outcome.”

Stolt would be the first to tell you that it’s been a team effort. His pride in his team shines through and he is happy to admit he depends on them. With their help, he has plotted a course that blends Bob Christensen’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit with new enterprise-oriented processes and goals.

“We wanted to make sure that we preserved the positive cultural attributes that Bob brought into the company. There was a sense of entrepreneurialism, a sense of being a visionary, and certainly a sense of excellence.”

Eight years later, Stolt is still president and CEO, and the company is thriving. Christensen Farms continues to honor the past while growing and evolving to meet the needs of a hungry planet.

Tell me about your background and your path to Christensen Farms.
I grew up in southern Minnesota. I was born in Nicollet, and my parents moved to New Ulm. My father was a cabinetmaker, and my mother was largely a stay-at-home mom. I met Tami, my wife of almost 30 years, while attending New Ulm High School. I attended Minnesota State University, Mankato, where I got my degree in finance and accounting in 1989. In 1996 I earned my MBA at the University of St. Thomas. Professionally, I started at Honeywell, then went on to The Toro Company, G&K Services, and Capella Education Company, holding a variety of finance roles.

I aspired to be a CFO. That was my goal. When an executive recruiting firm asked me to consider a CFO job for a protein company in southern Minnesota, I was interested. It was Christensen Farms. I threw my hat in the ring and in May of 2010, I came down and met Bob Christensen for the first time.

Having worked in publicly held, nonagricultural organizations for my entire career, going to Christensen Farms was a lot different. Obviously, the business was different, but even Bob was different. He was an entrepreneur. I remember him coming into the interview and his shirt was untucked. He was incredibly laid back. It was just an entirely different conversation than I was used to.

Bob took me for a drive in his truck around the countryside. There was a loop that drove by a finishing barn, a sow farm, a nursery, and the feed mill by our corporate office. It was his way, I think, of gauging a person’s genuine interest in the business and their ability to ask questions, to be curious about the business. It was a very unique interviewing technique. Long story short, he offered me the role and I joined Christensen Farms on Oct. 5, 2010, as the vice president and CFO.

What were your early days like at Christensen Farms?
When I joined the company, our balance sheet was not where we would have liked it to be. The hog industry had been going through some really challenging times starting in ‘08 and continuing into 2010 due to a number of factors.

Needless to say, I spent the better part of my first two years managing the financial recovery of the company and working with our banks, keeping them apprised of what we were doing and how we were managing our risk given the commodity nature of our business. In April of 2012, we did a recast of our banking facilities. We celebrated that we had made it through a very, very difficult time.

I recall in August of 2012, Bob and I sat down. We talked about what I’d done for the last couple of years and his desire for me to get more involved in the operations of the business. We also talked about the fact that Bob wasn’t an easy guy to work for. He obviously had great visionary skills and passion, and he was very entrepreneurial. But he was tough. He and I laughed about the fact that I’d been there two years. Would I be there for another two years or would I get lured away? That was kind of the jovial interactions that I had with him. Little did we know that we would lose him just a few months later.

Bob Christensen died unexpectedly in November 2012. That must have been a truly difficult transition. What was your strategy for healing the company and building a path to a solid future?
Bob and his son and others went down to Missouri on a hunting trip on a Friday night. On Saturday morning I learned that Bob had passed away. I got a call from Gary Koch, a longtime attorney for the company and the Christensen family. I remember Gary saying, “Glenn, you need to step up.” I didn’t know what that meant, and I wasn’t sure exactly where that was going.

What I did know is we couldn’t waste one minute getting communications out to our employees, our contract growers, our customers, and to all our stakeholders. We wanted to make sure our team members internally had a sense of continuity and a sense that we were going to move on. By Saturday afternoon, communications had been sent out to all stakeholders, both internally and externally.

Bob’s younger brother, Lynn, had been instrumental in building the company, but had left and relocated to Colorado. He flew back that weekend from Denver and we had a meeting on Sunday night. It included the senior management team, Gary Koch, and Lynn. That meeting was all about the days ahead. By Monday, I got the impression that they were probably going to ask me to step in on an interim basis.

I’d never aspired to run a company. I aspired to be a CFO. It never really dawned on me that I’d be in that position. Yet there I was. I was immediately concerned about how my colleagues, many of whom had been there for a lot longer period of time, would feel about that. I remember approaching Jeff Rusch, our vice president of operations, in the hallway, pulling him aside, and saying, “Hey, I think this is what’s going to happen. Are you OK with this?”

At the time, I didn’t realize how impactful that would be. Jeff and Greg Howard, who is now our chief operating officer, are the two executive leaders that have been with me the entire time. I would eventually need to depend on them. I was one of only a few individuals running a hog production company that didn’t grow up in the business. It was critical that I have experts around me that were deep in hog production.

I think the people that were making the decision — the Christensen family, Lynn Christensen, and certainly Gary Koch — must have decided to take a chance on somebody that didn’t have a lot of deep-seated hog experience. I had broad-based business experience to compliment the pig farmers, as we call ourselves within the business. Gary deserves enormous credit, as well, and has been a steadfast partner and confidant to me the entire time.

Sitting here now eight-plus years after the fact, that decision was the right one. It pulled the team together with a common mission.

What is Bob Christensen’s legacy? How is his imprint still felt in the company today?
When Bob passed away, we wanted to make sure that we preserved the positive cultural attributes that Bob brought into the company. There was a sense of entrepreneurialism, a sense of being a visionary, and certainly a sense of excellence. At the end of the day, Bob was a student every day. He looked at things around him and asked himself: What worked? What didn’t work? We wanted to make sure (to) retain those cultural things that Bob brought to the table.

We recrafted our mission statement to incorporate Bob’s legacy but also to recognize that we’re operating in a new world. Our mission statement had to be more reflective of what we’re trying to do with consumers, not only here in the U.S., but also globally.

We also fine-tuned our values. Respect and integrity are two key values that just have to be there in every one of us. Then there are three other values that are more business oriented. First, there’s adaptability, the ability to be nimble and agile and adapt to changing circumstances. Innovation is also important. We continue to look at innovative ways to make our job easier and to deliver on our responsibilities, whether that be environmental stewardship, animal welfare, or employee safety. Last but not least, we need to continue to be excellent. When the industry goes through a challenge, as we’ve done so many times, those of us that are continuously performing at the highest level tend to be the last ones to enter those down cycles and the first ones to get out. Excellence is a critical component of what we do every day.

How does the Christensen family continue to shape the business today?
The Christensen Farm’s board is made up of three people. Mary Ann Christensen is the current chairperson, and Gary Koch and I also sit on the board. The three of us provide the governance. We keep the family apprised through quarterly meetings and on an ongoing basis on what is going on in the company. The family has provided us absolutely unwavering support over so many years, which has been extremely helpful to me and the rest of the organization.

Bob and Mary Ann have two children, Robert Jr. (Cubby) and Kellen. They were very young at the time of Bob’s passing. It is yet to be determined what type of role either one of them would like to play in the industry. They are both currently pursuing academic degrees.

When you have a first-generation founder pass away at 51, there isn’t a ready generation to take his spot. So, we need to look at ourselves as the bridge to the second generation. We don’t know whether that second generation will be owners or operators or a combination of the two. We just need to continue to manage the business, grow the talent within the business, and provide the business the leadership and talent it needs, not only today but also into the future.

Today Christensen Farms is one of the largest family-owned pork producers in the United States. Can you help me understand the scope of your operation?
On the live side of the business, we have close to 1,000 employees. These are individuals that are working on our farms, in our truck washes, in our feed mills, in our research facilities, and in the corporate office in Sleepy Eye. We also rely on some 1,500 contract relationships. These are individuals that are contract producers (farmers that house our livestock, providing space and husbandry), grain farmers, and truck drivers that transport our livestock between farms or to market. All told, we have 2,500 people; 2,500 families that are dedicating themselves to our business. They get up every morning thinking about Christensen Farms and what we do every day.

In addition to that, with our partial ownership in Triumph Foods, Seaboard Triumph Foods, and Daily’s Premium Meats, our proportion of employees on the processing side of the business is roughly 1,500 employees. All told our leadership team has a responsibility to over 4,000 families in what we do and how we make decisions every day.

In terms of your locations, what is your footprint today?
We have farms in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Illinois, and Nebraska. That’s the general footprint for our live side. It includes about 400 sites, sow farms and what we call nursery grow-finish facilities that are growing out the pigs before they are sent to market. On our processing and further processing side, we have facilities in Iowa, Missouri, Montana, and Utah, as well.

How has the company changed since you took the reins?
At one point in time, I think Christensen Farms was in the top five in the industry with a much larger sow base as reported by the Pork Powerhouse Rankings. We strategically decided to get leaner and meaner on the live side of the business. That was critically important because when we look at the breakout of the value of a pound of pork, the data would say that very little of it goes to the farms. Yet the farms hold all the commodity risk, so it is a difficult business to be in.

In 2006, we started processing some of our pigs at Triumph Foods, a pork processing company owned by Christensen Farms and four other producers. It was a risk-oriented decision by Bob and those producers at the time, but it has turned out to be very successful.

Since Bob’s passing, we have doubled down on that venture. We went through a strategic planning process that we entitled Vision 2020. One of its key priorities was to increase our level of integration — in other words, the number of pigs we send to plants in which we have partial ownership. At that time, we were roughly 40 percent integrated. We would never want to be 100 percent integrated, but we certainly wanted to capture a greater share of integrated margins for the viability and sustainability of the company. We accomplished our goal by the end of 2019 through the building of Seaboard Triumph Foods.

Today on the live side of the business, we are integrated into feed milling, genetics, nutrition, and research. Much of that is proprietary assets and activities. We have a base of about 143,000 sows today, breeding moms that produce around 3.5 million market animals a year. The majority of them go to the processing facilities we own in conjunction with other partners. By doing this we capture the benefit of integrated margins.

We’ve talked a little bit about the number of employees you have. What is your need right now? Are you hiring?
Labor in many industries is really, really tight, particularly for those of us that operate in rural areas. Twenty-five years ago, we were hiring people that grew up on farms and were dedicated to rural communities. That’s not the case anymore. We are struggling to get labor into our rural communities to serve our farms, but we’re also struggling to get labor even in our plants that are in larger metropolitan areas. Part of it is finding people that have a passion for agriculture, retaining those people, and continuing to develop them.

Quite frankly, while we focus on the recruitment of new employees, our primary focus needs to be on the retention of the employees that we have today. We continue to challenge ourselves in how we are recruiting people. How are we selecting those individuals? How do we onboard them? How do we assimilate them into our farming family? How do we show them the view of where they can take their careers?

For example, Jeff Rusch started as a herdsman 25-plus years ago. He literally started on the farm and now he’s the vice president of operations. We spend a lot of time on what we call the employee lifecycle: recruitment, retention, and giving the best employee experience. That includes paying them a competitive salary, giving them competitive benefits, and creating opportunities for them to develop themselves and continue to grow.

Every quarter we do a town hall to give employees an update on the business. I end that call with a recognition of all the employee anniversaries for that quarter. I’m always blown away by how many employees have been with the company above 15 years, above 20 years, and even above 30 years. It’s incredibly satisfying for me, for the Christensen family, and across the management ranks of the company. We’re humbled by the fact that people have been willing to dedicate their entire work life to Christensen Farms.

In terms of the number of employees, most of the growth requirements for us are in our integrated platforms, our processing plants, and further processing plants. For example, in the Seaboard Triumph Foods facility in Sioux City, Iowa, we could easily accommodate a few hundred more people to process all the products we produce every day.

You are a very large company headquartered in a very small town. How has your Sleepy Eye location shaped your company?
Sleepy Eye is where our roots are.

Bob was blessed not only with his visionary skills and his entrepreneurial skills, but he was also blessed by where he was born. Seriously, there is no better place on the globe than southern Minnesota to raise protein and, specifically, to raise pigs. We have a very close, abundant supply of everything we need. All of the inputs, namely corn and soybeans, that we feed our animals are grown right here. For Christensen Farms, being here in the right place relative to the business, we generate over $110 million of annual economic impact to the communities in which we operate within the state of Minnesota alone.

Sleepy Eye is an incredibly important place for us to be.

What kinds of products do you produce?
As we take a pig into a primary processing facility, a number of different products are produced. Primals such as loins are produced, so if you go into certain grocery stores you might run into the Prairie Fresh brand in the pork section. They sell flavored loins, which are produced within our processing facility. We like to sell the bellies to our Daily’s Premium Meats business. Those bellies are smoked and ultimately are made into bacon for retail or food service. Variety meats, also known as offal, go to international markets.

There’s also what we call trim product that we sell to other further processors that are made into sausage products or other related pork products.

Let’s move on to your customer base. Your website mentions providing food for 15 million people around the world. Who are your customers?
Pork is the No. 1 consumed protein globally. There’s no other protein — chicken, beef, or aquaculture — that is bigger. The U.S. pork industry exports roughly 24 to 26 percent of its product, and the most significant pork export markets are Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, and South Korea. The Triumph Foods system exports closer to 30 percent of our product. Given that per capita pork consumption in the United States is relatively flat, as the industry grows it automatically puts more reliance on exporting products to international destinations.

Many of these export markets like the same products that we enjoy here in the U.S., loins and hams. What’s incredibly important though is the market for byproducts. Offal or variety meats, the intestines and other types of products, are very highly valued by some of the Asian markets. Having continued access to those export markets and being able to grow them is very important.

In the U.S., our customer base is broken down into largely three areas. The first area is further processing, where we don’t have the capability to process the by-product ourselves. The second area is food service such as restaurants. The third area is retail grocery stores, whether it be Walmart or Costco or local grocery stores in our own communities.

Today’s farms are high-tech, business-savvy enterprises. What are the latest technological developments in your industry?
We are heavy into the use of data and a bit into artificial intelligence, using data to create modeling that helps us run our business and make better decisions. Another avenue of technology we’re pursuing is the use of systems to advance farm operations on a number of fronts, including predicting pig weights.

We are also looking at automation, robotic automation, from a biosecurity perspective. Keeping our pigs healthy, for example, requires a lot of power washing in farms and in trucks. Those are really, really difficult jobs. It’s difficult for us to retain people in those jobs, so we are looking for technology solutions. We try to align ourselves with contract manufacturing outfits to create mutually beneficial opportunities to build equipment and build technology to basically overcome some of these types of challenges.

Finally, COVID has taken a business that is largely face to face, eyeball to eyeball, and made it far more virtual than it’s ever been in the past. We were faced with a very challenging task last March when COVID hit us. We had to bolster our virtual communications reality literally overnight.

During the pandemic, people stayed home, and restaurants were closed. Did you see a shift in demand for your products?
Absolutely. The shift from food service to retail was significant. If you think about it, a lot of product that goes to food service gets packaged much differently than what you and I would buy at the grocery store. Take bacon, for example. You buy a 1.5-pound package of bacon at the grocery store but we’re delivering 15-pound packages of bacon to food service. We had to be pretty nimble at processing facilities to make that shift. The projections our bacon business provided us last year looked like a heartbeat. As states opened up, you’d get a surge in demand for food service products. Then as states closed your demand would shrink quickly.

The biggest impact from COVID was the fact that the primary pork processing facilities across the industry found themselves short of labor due to COVID cases in those plants. They couldn’t process nearly as many animals as they normally would have. I am pleased that our plants, in addition to plants across the industry, have largely and safely returned to pre-COVID processing levels.

What are some of the achievements that your company has had that you’re most proud of?
Our five-year Vision 2020 plan set the strategic priority of reaching a higher level of integration to our plants, which we achieved. It was a huge, huge win. We improved our competitive position within the industry on the live side of the business from middle of the road to the top quartile. We believe that we’re probably even in the top 10 percent of the industry. I’m incredibly proud of what the team has done in that regard.

I’m also proud of our employee development efforts. When we were an entrepreneurially run business under Bob, development opportunities often consisted of throwing people in the deep end of the pool. As you think about the life cycle of a growing business, that was an important step. But as the company starts to mature, you’ve got to transition from an entrepreneurial focus to more of an enterprise leadership focus. That means that you’ve got to build out a greater level of infrastructure and talent development. We’ve done that and continue that journey.

One last thing. In our mission statement, we use the words industry leadership. We use those words not to pound our chest. We use those words as a point of responsibility that we have not only to ourselves, but to the industry. When I look at the people in our organization that now participate at industry association levels, community levels, it has drastically increased over the last five years. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to run the business, improve the business, but also dedicate ourselves to broader industry and community activities, as well.

This has been a team effort. It isn’t just me. There are a lot of people that are incredibly instrumental in our success.

That’s a big list of achievements and one that you can certainly be proud of. Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
When you have a good team that helps, right? We have a quality team that demonstrates their passion and commitment every day. So, what keeps me up at night isn’t the risk in the business, it’s the risk outside the business.

There is a growing knowledge gap between consumers and the development of the product they consume. People that don’t like what we do, whether it’s animal activists or environmentalists, have become very skillful in going out to consumers in a very myopic way and asking consumers a question (out of context). That question might be an observation of one out of hundreds of activities that take place in pork production. But the question is asked to a naive consumer in such a way that the consumer naturally says, “No, I don’t really like that.” The consumer doesn’t have the curiosity or the time to investigate. So, we have this growing impression that what we do is not good, that what we do is not healthy, that what we do is not good for the environment.

Some would say that we’re not regulated enough. Some would say we’re not transparent enough. I would tell you neither of them is true. We are regulated not only by governments but by ourselves, and we are very transparent. To suggest otherwise is just simply not the case. Yet it is a long, drawn-out challenge for our industry to get out ahead of this misinformation. It’s something that concerns me deeply. Ultimately if we don’t course-correct it, it’s going to have an impact on the price and potential availability of nutritious food across America. Now by the same token, we can’t ignore the fact that we do have a responsibility for being good stewards of the environment, which we are. I don’t think that story gets told nearly enough.