Poultry principles Featured

8:00pm EDT April 26, 2004
When he was 12 years old, John Bekkers made a decision that would affect the rest of his life.

The education system in Bekkers' native Holland is somewhat different than in the United States. While American children are just trying to figure out the opposite sex, pre-teens in Holland are given three choices -- they may opt for trade, professional or business school. Bekkers selected the business program.

"You don't have as many choices," says Bekkers, president and CEO of Gold Kist Inc. "Here, you go to high school and you can choose your subjects. Over there, most all your subjects are academic; you go to school six days a week rather than five. It was much more intense than it is here."

His choice would lead him to places he never expected to go, such as the top post at Gold Kist, the only cooperative chicken company in the United States.

Bekkers' interest in Gold Kist began as a consultant, when the company was one of his clients. Over the years, he'd been offered many positions with the various enterprises with which he'd worked for as a consultant and had always turned them down. But in 1985 -- two years after becoming a U.S. citizen -- tired of the traveling and of having his children grow up without him, Bekkers accepted a position with the poultry company.

"When Gold Kist asked me to become part of their management team," he says, "I accepted that and really, in a sense, did the exact same thing for a couple of years, which was (serve as) an internal consultant to improve productivity and profitability in the company. When they made me that offer, I jumped on it and knew that I wanted to be part of this company."

Gold Kist processes 14 million chickens a week in an industry that processes 165 million chickens every seven days. Its products are labeled under the Gold Kist Farms brand name and the private labels of many supermarkets. Its chicken is also served at fast food chains and full-service restaurants, as part of school lunches and in many frozen meals.

Getting started

Gold Kist got its start 71 years ago as an agribusiness. And while everything from the growing of chickens to their processing and distribution has been changed by technology since then, the principles that drive the company have not.

"The fundamentals in business remain the same," Bekkers says. "I don't care whether you did that 100 years ago. If you manage a business for longevity, for sustainability, you have to take into consideration who your stakeholders are. It has to be in the best interest of all your stakeholders -- suppliers, employees, customers and the communities that we serve. All of those come into play.

"So many times businesses are run for the benefit of just one -- the shareholder. Don't get me wrong, you've got to manage for the shareholder, but you can't do it at the expense of the others. From a sustainability standpoint, you definitely have to manage where all four of those benefit."

But to listen to Bekkers explain it, the biggest beneficiary may be him.

"It's turned out even better than I thought it would," he says. "Look where I finally ended up. I never had any aspirations to do this. I just wanted to contribute. When you're a consultant, you get to tell people what to do, but once you have been four to six months on a particular project, then you move on. You never really see all the fruits of your labor.

"Implementing some of those things, staying there and seeing the results, is very gratifying. I wanted that opportunity to manage a facility, to manage a company rather than telling people how to do it."

The things he learned as a consultant led Bekkers to focus the company, a collection of more than 2,300 cooperative member-owners, on its core principles.

"We are a cooperative," says Bekkers, "so we manage our business for the economic well-being of our cooperative members who are the equity holders of the company."

Focus on the core

Over seven decades of operation, Gold Kist has delved into a variety of products, among them cotton, poultry, processing plants, a fertilizer plant, animal feeds, peanuts, pecans and catfish. Today, it is almost entirely focused on chickens.

"In 1999, we decided row crop agriculture, which is really where Gold Kist got its start in 1933, was something that was not our core business any more," says Bekkers. "Poultry had become our core business. If you looked at our total revenue, which was around $2.4 billion, about $1.9 billion of that was poultry.

"We looked at the performance of all our assets. Certainly those (nonpoultry) assets weren't performing at nearly the level as poultry was. We decided to focus on our core business, to commit all of our resources to our core business."

Today, the company's holdings are nearly 100 percent chicken-related, with a small interest in contract rolling hogs. It has nine divisions, which include 11 processing plants, 18 hatcheries, 11 feed mills, eight distribution centers and three byproduct plants.

"We are now starting to see the results of improved performance in our poultry company from a productivity standpoint," Bekkers says. "That's because we're focusing all of our energies on being one of the best companies in the industry. Before, we had to divert our attention to a lot of those other assets that really weren't giving us much return.

"We're pretty well pleased with the results that we're getting out of those efforts that we started about six years ago."

Seeing the results of his efforts is a benefit Bekkers was denied during his days as a consultant.

"The main difference is a consultant is there for a short period of time," Bekkers says. "They speed up a process that you were most likely going to do anyway. On the other side, you get to implement. You live by your decisions. You're there and you see the results, whether they're negative or positive.

"You react to those decisions and you adjust to them. Consultants, they're in or out, and you're there for the long term."

Lead from within

Despite his success on the outside looking in, Bekkers did not move directly from consultant to the company's top spot. First, he managed managed Gold Kist's largest poultry production and processing operations at Boaz and Guntersville, Ala., then served as director of management systems for its poultry business.

"It was great experience," he says. "I went from consulting -- managing my own business, which had a limited number of employees -- to all of a sudden managing a division of about $250 million in sales and about 2,800 employees. I already understood the operations, I already understood the business because of the consulting side, but to manage that many people was something new to me. That was an experience that was very valuable."

In 1995, Bekkers was named president and COO. Six years later, in July 2001, he was elected president and CEO. Since then, he has worked to maintain the culture that drew him to the company in the first place.

"Gold Kist is a company of great culture and great purpose," he says. "One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that our employees have many years of service with the company. We still are the old, traditional company -- you start with the company, you retire with the company."

Bekkers strives to ensure that culture is maintained.

"A lot of companies put up signs -- 'We're team members and we do this or we do that,' but I think it ultimately comes down to whether you walk the walk and talk the talk," he says. "That's what we do in our own way. We don't go around and publish it all. We don't put up signs. We just have a very open culture.

"My office is always open; anybody can walk in at any time, and say, 'You got a minute? I've got a problem.' I think that is the way it is with just about all of our VPs and all of our managers.

"We're not out there every day telling somebody what to do, how to do their job. We firmly believe that when people come to work every day, they want to do a good job. I've never met too many people that come to work every day and say, 'What can I screw up today?' There are just not that many people out there."

The company also offers other ways for employees to connect.

"We still have a devotional service on Wednesday mornings, not that everybody is overly religious, but we allow people for half an hour to bring in a speaker or a minister of their choice," he says. "We're a very traditional company when it comes to that. To really, truly believe in our employees, and that they play an important part in the success of our company, if there is anything you would take away from that, that's what I'm the proudest of -- the kind of culture that we have and the service that we provide to all of our stakeholders." How to reach: Gold Kist Inc., (770) 393-5000 or www.goldkist.com