An interview with Robert Rebholtz and Charles Miller
Co-chairs of the 2011 Beef Industry Long-Range Plan Task Force
Recently, Holly Foster, interim associate editor for Beef Issues Quarterly, had an opportunity to visit with Robert Rebholtz and Charles Miller, co-chairs of the current Beef Industry Long-Range Plan Task Force.
Rebholtz is president and CEO of Agri Beef Co., a family-owned business that operates ranches and feedlots in Idaho, Kansas and Washington, as well as a beef processing facility. Agri Beef Co. also operates Performix, a cattle feed and supplement manufacturer.
Miller is the owner of C&J Cattle Co., a backgrounding and cow-calf operation in Kentucky. He has served in the southeastern United States as a spokesperson for premises registration. He also developed a genetic improvement program for feeders. Miller is chairman of the board for Integrated Traceability Solutions, a company that deals with source and age verification of feeder cattle.
Along with Rebholtz and Miller, the Beef Industry Long-Range Plan Task Force represented key sectors and organizations across the industry.
In October 2010, Rebholtz and Miller, along with 21 other beef industry leaders, convened to begin developing a new 2011-2013 Beef Industry Long-Range Plan. The task force gathered information from a wide range of sources, examined and prioritized the industry’s most urgent needs and put together a vision, mission statement and core strategies to respond to those needs. That work culminated with approval of a 2011–2013 beef industry long-range plan by industry participants at the 2011 Cattle Industry Convention in February.
The current plan provides the beef industry with focused direction through 2013 to achieve the following vision: “An industry united around a common goal of being the world’s most trusted and preferred source of beef and beef products.” The current plan consists of a vision, mission statement, strategic intent statement, six core strategies and goals, a number of supporting strategic initiatives and two critical success factors. A one-page summary of the plan can be accessed at www.beefusa.org .
Other members of the 2011 Beef Industry Long-Range Plan Task Force include:
Holly Foster: You are both involved in the industry from very different perspectives – stocker operator and CEO of a vertically integrated beef operation. Tell us why you think it was important to include all segments of beef production within the Long-Range Plan Task Force and how that industry representation has expanded from previous Long-Range Plan Task Forces?
|Ron Bryant, Intervet Schering-Plough Animal Health
||Mark Mackey, Livestock Marketing Association
|Homer Buell, Shovel Dot Ranch
||Leo McDonnell, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association
|Mark Van Buskirk, The Kroger Company
||Charlie Mostek, Tyson Fresh Meats
|Barry Carpenter, National Meat Association
||Billy Perrin, Livestock Marketing Association
|Jack Cowley, Cowley Ranch
||Homero Recio, Agri-West International, Inc.
|Mark Eganhouse, Wendy’s International
||Joe Schechinger, Wendy’s International
|Mike Engler, Cactus Feeders
||Don Schiefelbein, Schiefelbein Farms
|Robert Fountain, Jr., commercial cattle producer, Georgia
||Todd Schroeder, Albers Feedlot
|Ted Greidanus, Calftech Corp.
||Don Stewart, Stewart-Miller, Inc.
|Paul Heinrich, Sysco Corporation
||Bob Young, American Farm Bureau Federation
|David Kent, The Kroger Company
Robert Rebholtz: The current task force included more representation from industry associations. I was involved with the previous task force and while it was certainly broad in scope, this one was much broader and included a variety of associations and stakeholders, as well as state and national industry leadership. Each segment brings a different perspective and insight into the industry. What we found out is, once we all got together and started sharing our perspectives and discussing the issues, there was a broader understanding of current issues and opportunities. The net result was a comprehensive, well-thought out and vetted long-range plan.
Charles Miller: We all sometimes get caught up in our own areas and fail to realize how interrelated this industry is. To me it was refreshing to have all the various perspectives represented. For a lot of us, it was a learning experience because we realized there is a reason that packers do what they do, and a reason that foodservice people do what they do. It was enlightening to bring all of that insight into the plan itself.
HF: How did your individual perspectives shape your thoughts on what you thought was critical to the development of an effective long-range plan?
CM: I’m from east of the Mississippi River in Kentucky, where we have a lot of producers with smaller herd sizes than in the West. It was important to me that the perspective of this group of producers be represented in this plan.
HF: Charles, with your production background of a smaller producer, how did that shape the goals that you thought the task force should address and the ultimate plan?
CM: From day one, I wanted it to be an all-inclusive plan. I wanted it to represent the whole of the industry. No matter the size of our operation, we all encounter the same problems going forward, whether those be regulatory challenges, or input costs; these are things that are not unique to any of us. We needed a plan that everybody could look at and say, “Here’s a part where maybe I could play a role going forward in this industry.” Trying to fashion something that is appealing to both small and large producers was on my mind throughout the process.
HF: Robert, did your visions of the long-range plan differ in the beginning stages?
RR: Approaching this long-range plan, I felt there was a lot of opportunity for the industry to continue our efforts to grow domestic and export demand. Some of the surprising things that came to the forefront centered on the image of the beef industry and the importance of being able to communicate to consumers about the benefits of beef and maintaining consumer confidence. As we developed the core strategies and goals, I think the true light bulb moment for me was the importance of funding and allocating resources to this plan. Five years ago that wasn’t identified as such a necessity. That’s why the task force established as a critical success factor the development of a resourcing plan to achieve desired outcomes of the long-range plan.
HF: Previous long-range plans have set a course for a five-year period. The current plan establishes goals for three years – tell us why the task force made this decision.
CM: I would sum that up in one word - volatility. Looking at our national economy, the world economy and the market for live cattle today, we are in a very volatile situation. To be able to bring our industry forward, I think it was prudent to go with a three-year plan, because so much is happening so quickly.
RR: Five years ago, the long-range plan task force faced different concerns. The primary concern then was the loss of export markets we experienced after the discovery of the United States’ first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). But, fast forward to today and we’re looking at an environment with a weaker dollar, lower interest rates and, as Charles mentioned, a lot of market volatility. It became apparent that trying to forecast what the environment would look like five years from now would be very difficult. The current environment is extremely dynamic and new technology and the speed of communication makes the pace of change just that much quicker. Switching to a three-year period seemed logical.
HF: The current plan also allows for periodic updates and changes to be made during the course of the next three years. Why was that aspect included in the current plan and what sort of event or circumstance would trigger the need to revise the current plan?
RR: Once some facts or circumstances change, it might behoove industry leadership and associations that are trying to execute this plan to step back and take a look at the fundamental assumptions we made in the original plan and see if they’ve changed – if so, different priorities could emerge.
CM: Because of market volatility, this plan provides an opportunity to go back in and look at the plan to see if anything needs to be updated or tweaked as we monitor the progress in various areas. This is important to help this plan be successful going forward.
The goals and objectives within the plan are achievable. For example, I think we can achieve the objective to increase the per head value of exports by 25 percent to $185 per head. But, there could be circumstances within this three-year period that could make that objective less realistic. We’ll analyze circumstances as they present themselves, be they negative or positive, to monitor and adjust this plan going forward.
HF: Since the development of the last long-range plan, what do you think have been some of the most pivotal drivers in the industry that shaped the vision, mission and core strategies and goals for the current plan?
RR: In developing the 2011-2013 plan, we essentially wanted to start from scratch; to have everyone start the brainstorming process with the current issues and organize around a new plan which marshals resources to address current opportunities and challenges.
CM: One thing that concerned all segments around the table was the decline in our cowherd in this country. There were some major concerns specific to this issue, especially given the fact that exports are developing at such a good pace right now. In addition, concerns around the image of our industry rose to the top of the discussion. We’re continually bombarded with claims that we’re not doing things right and someone is always looking at our industry as the whipping boy. There was a strong sense of urgency across all segments around the table that all of us, whatever segment of the industry we were involved in, need to try to work to be more transparent and more open in presenting a positive case for our industry. Those were two prominent factors the task force wanted to address in the long-range plan.
HF: One of your critical strategic questions, was “What can the industry do to create a unified focus around a common goal?” Considering the vast array of perspectives represented by the members of the task force, explain how the group came to a consensus on a plan that they feel the entire industry can get behind.
CM: I said repeatedly during the 2011 Cattle Industry Convention when the plan was first presented, that I wish every producer in this country had an opportunity to sit around that table and hear the discussion that took place between the various segments of our industry. It was refreshing to see representatives from organizations that have sometimes disagreed in the past, or representatives from production meeting with representatives from the foodservice and retail sectors, and sharing common ideas and how to take these forward. The task force came up with a plan that every segment could support so I think it’s pretty easy to say that we have a plan that really meets the needs of the entire industry. Most of the participants already have taken that plan back to their various groups. That shows the commitment on the part of the task force members to do everything possible to make this plan successful.
RR: I think each of the representatives that were part of this plan did their personal best to put aside any sort of politics, take an objective look at the industry and provide their professional input and judgment about what was important. I think that went a long way. We approached this thing from a 50,000 feet level by identifying the major issues that are in front of us, brainstorming solutions and trying to coalesce around the key elements we need to accomplish.
HF: How has the experience of co-chairing this task force shaped your outlook for your individual businesses, as well as the industry as a whole, looking ahead for the next three years and beyond?
RR: Given my family business structure where we are vertically integrated and involved in both export markets and domestic markets with branded products, the one element that really emerged for me was what was termed the “anxiety level” in the industry. There is high anxiety among producers about sustainability and their future in the industry. That was something I was able to bring back to our business to begin challenging our team on how we can get closer to producers, how we can provide a partnership to answer some of their questions and provide a market that they are looking for. We’ve begun some steps and action plans at Agri Beef Co. towards achieving that goal.
CM: Everything about this was a “take home” experience for me; however, I think as producers we often tend to dwell on the negative. In a lot of cases that is a response to the circumstances that surround us and we fail to seek out the positive. For me, one of the real eye openers was the tremendous opportunity this industry has. Sustainability was a term that was discussed just about every time that the task force got together, and it’s hard to put a definition on that term. There is a great deal of producer concern, considering all of the input costs and other issues, but it was refreshing to know that there are opportunities out there and if we work and manage smart we can take advantage of those opportunities. I came out with a much more positive outlook than when I went into this process. I can’t say enough about the commitment on the part of the members of the task force to try to do their best to make this industry successful going forward.
HF: Are there any other comments that you would like to share with the readers of Beef Issues Quarterly?
RR: This was a unique opportunity to get engaged with this plan and to help the industry be successful long-term. I believe we all share the goal of working together to build demand and keep beef at the center of the plate.
CM: During our presentation at the 2011 Cattle Industry Convention, I made the statement that it really doesn’t matter who we are, where we come from, or where we live, this plan addresses everyone, because it’s a beef industry plan. No matter who we are, or where we’re from, we’re all part of the beef industry, we all love it, and it’s an integral part of our lives. So this plan is everyone’s plan because that’s the way it was put together. Going forward, if we all look at it as our plan, I think that we can see great success come from it.