Got a complaint about your Norbest turkey? Call Ken Rutledge, he wants to hear from you. Got some praise concerning the same bird? Call him about that, too. Nobody minds hearing a little good news once in a while.
The point is this: you might not be able to get the president of General Motors on the phone to talk about problems with your new Buick. And the chief executive of Nabisco might not care to hear that your crackers were soggy, but the president and general manager of one of the nation's largest turkey producers isn't too busy to hear from his customers. In today's corporate world, that's a minor miracle.Rutledge, president and general manager of Norbest Inc., the Utah-based company that is the world's largest turkey marketing cooperative and the nation's fourth largest turkey processor, does not hedge on that promise.
"This is probably the only major U.S. company where a consumer can phone and talk with the president," he says. "I don't have my calls screened. If a consumer phones me to complain, I take the time to listen because someone took the time to call. We must show care and concern. If a problem develops and a turkey is overcooked, I'll listen sympathetically and try to make the caller happy.
"My hope is that the once-disgruntled consumer will tell friends what a good company Norbest is and not about the overcooked turkey."
Rutledge, 41, who joined Norbest four years ago, replaced retiring 28-year veteran Owen Sumsion at the first of the year. Rutledge came to Utah in 1984 after 10 years with Norbest's chief competitor, Swift and Company, producer of the Butterball brand. He is now intent on booting his former company out of first place.
"We feel good about being the major challenger of Butterball," said Rutledge. "They process between 280-300 million pounds of turkey a year and we are in the 230-250 million pound range, but we are closing the gap quickly. We feel ours is the best whole-bird product in the industry and we have university and consumer studies, based on taste tests, to substantiate that claim.
"With that in our portfolio, we are now focusing on specialty turkey products. We see it as our greatest growth area. Others are doing the same."
As noted in today's Money section cover story on Norbest, that's where the "trendy," or "designer" turkey comes in. If you think turkey is just the 20-pound bird you put on your Thanksgiving table every November is the future of this industry, think again.
"The challenge I've given our staff is to develop 24 new products each year," said Rutledge. "We must appeal to the lifestyles of today's busy, health and budget conscious consumers with new and improved food items."
It would be difficult to think of a more established or uniquely American food than turkey. Americans associate it with the very foundation of the nation, beginning with the pilgrims and the landing of the Mayflower. But Rutledge wastes no time on that kind of thinking. He believes the turkey industry is in its infancy when it comes to product development.
"Keeping attuned to the lifestyles of consumers is why Norbest has developed new and innovative products," said Rutledge. "There's a great potential for growth in specialty foods and we are vigorously pursuing it. We're not leaving anything to the competition."
The competition, of course, is mainly the beef and pork industries, which have monopolized the specialty markets - everything from pastrami and salami to hot dogs and smoked ham - for years. No longer, vows Rutledge.
"Anything you can produce from beef and pork, you can make with turkey. And in most cases, the turkey product is more economical, more healthful and easier to prepare. Those are three important marketing considerations when planning marketing strategies for today's consumer."
Rutledge does not go unarmed into the battle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture endorses turkey as more nutritional than many competitive products , but more importantly, turkey adapts well to what the industry terms "flavor enhancing."
"We can flavor turkey so it will have a smoked taste or just about any other flavor without damaging its nutritional values," said Rutledge.
Rutledge came to the turkey business by a roundabout route; he originally set out for a career as a school teacher.
Born in Carbon Hill, Alabama, a small coal mining town in the northwest part of the state, his family moved, when he was seven, to Warsaw, Ind., where he grew up and attended what he calls "Larry Bird University" - Indiana State University.
At Indiana State, Rutledge met his wife, Brenda, and both taught school in southern Indiana. In 1973, to supplement his school salary, he applied for work at Swift's plant in Jasper, Ind. It proved to me a major career decision.
"I had visions of being a school teacher all my life," he recalls, "but after two months at Swift, I was making more per hour than I was as a school teacher with three years experience. That's when I decided my teaching career was over."
Not long after, he became the health and safety coordinator at the plant, which led to becoming director of procurement and processing and eventually manager of two plants. Later, he moved to Swift's Chicago headquarters where he graduated from the company's management training course. In 1984, he accepted an offer from Norbest.
"I never dreamed I would leave Swift, but here I am," he notes, the sixth president of the 58-year-old co-op. Prior to being named president of Norbest this year, Rutledge was executive vice president and director of operations, giving him working knowledge of every facet of the turkey business, from working in the hatcheries to being in the field with adult turkeys, delivering chicks, working in the plants, and as a brand manager.
That experience was invaluable, says Rutledge, because he can "talk turkey" with employees in the plants, with growers, hatchery workers and the sales force. And he's not afraid to tackle any of those jobs today. Earlier this year, he filled in for an ill staffer, buying and selling like a veteran salesman.
"I don't lobby for boss of the year honors, but I'd sure be disappointed if my employees didn't feel free to speak with me," said Rutledge. "Sure, we have a chain of command, but we foster an open-door policy. I don't pass a day when I don't say `good morning' to every employee in the office."
Following board meetings, directors meet with employees and let them know what is going on in the company. "I keep reminding myself that a president is only as good as the people he manages. My philosophy is that because our employees are good, they warrant my personal attention."
Rutledge has found that working for a co-op is not the same as corporate life at Swift. At Norbest, the growers are the owners and their own bosses. Norbest works for them. But there is very little turnover among the members and those running the business are the same people who are raising the turkeys.
Ask Rutledge about his hobby, and he'll tell you working is his pastime. Yes, he enjoys his own product - "It sounds corny, I know, but I love turkey" - but he rarely has turkey for lunch for a simple reason: he seldom has lunch. Instead, he has a workout at a health spa near the office with his management team, John Hall, vice president-secretary and Ron Attenbury, vice president-treasurer.
While working up a sweat, they talk marketing strategy and growth potential, particularly in the Orient. Norbest is considered a local brand in Japan, where the company has done business for 11 years.
"When we consider the great population numbers in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, we see almost unlimited growth potential," said Rutledge. "In the U.S., turkey consumption is about 16 pounds per capita per year. If we could get China to have an annual per capita consumption of only one-quarter pound, Norbest would realize tremendous profits."
Norbest is currently helping the Chinese government establish a 7-million-pounds-per-year turkey processing plant in Tianjin, port city for Beijing, China's capital. The plant is expected to come on line in 1990. By comparison, most domestic Norbest plants process 30 million to 80 million pounds annually.
"If I leave a legacy," said Rutledge, "it will be to make Norbest the No. 1 marketer in the industry. We are not far from it now. After we reach it, I want to maintain it for the next president of Norbest."