Saturday, November 15, 2008

Scaling up without selling your soul - Part 9


At Polyface, we only raise meat chickens in the summer because that’s when they can be out on pasture. We work in the woods in the winter because that’s when the wood is better, since the sap is down. And the rattlesnakes aren’t around, either. This ebb and flow in the work cycle feeds our emotions with down times and sprint times. Enjoy this flow.

Industrial animal operations, in contrast, run full bore all the time. No breaks. Consequently workers get burned out, owners get burned out, and the children don’t want any part of it. In fact, most farm parents don’t want their kids to farm. That’s why the average American farmer is now almost 60 years old. The business axiom that puts age 35 as the median for any thriving economic sector is real.

In the winter we spend days just lounging around the fire reading books and playing board games. Yes, we sprint in the spring, summer, and fall, but we always have that light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to. We’re excited to see the last broiler go into the freezer in the fall because we’re rich and tired. We’re just as excited to see the new chicks arrive in the spring because we’re rested and poor.

We have many customers who push us to defy the seasons, build a confinement poultry house, and go into year-round production. But that would not only compromise our pastured product integrity, it would put us on a treadmill. Are you on a treadmill?

I recently visited a large e-corporation and all the employees I talked with were frustrated that they could never get breathing room. The pace became faster each month; expectations higher. Schedule some downtime. Some R&R. And let the business enjoy cyclical movement. It will energize everyone’s batteries. The assumption that scaling up the corporate ladder requires us to sacrifice our families and marriages is an unrighteous, evil axiom in America. Our frenetic, work-aholic lifestyles, contrary to popular opinion, are highly abnormal in the continuum of human history. The times of our lives will always trump the paychecks of our lives.

To be Continued...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Scaling up without selling your soul - Part 8


This may seem nitpicky, but how many of you love talking to a robot? After being on the phone with a robot and starting over the fifth time, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be more efficient to just hire an incentivized neighbor to answer the phone and deal efficiently with the transaction. I’m convinced that if businesses put their money in people instead of the latest techno-gadget, maybe they wouldn’t have to advertise. To be clear, I’m not talking about voice mail; I’m talking about robots.

I answered the phone the other day and a lady on the other end stuttered: “Oh, is this a real person? I didn’t expect to talk to a real person.” If I were king for a day, I would outlaw all robot phone machines. Be honest. Does anyone here enjoy hearing: “Press 1, press, 2, press 3?” We all hate it, and yet we succumb to some sales pitch and the seeming efficiency and buy into anti-human treatment. And most of us are in business to deal with humans.

If westerners are starved for appreciation, they are also starved for human contact. While I may be a farmer and technically in the food business, really I’m in the relationship business—and so is everyone in this room. Shame on me if I shortcut this human touch and force my patrons to talk to a robot.

A well trained, pleasant-voiced, empowered person can handle my frequent flyer miles redemption ten times faster than the robot. If the airlines would offer a human transaction instead of a robot, I’d gladly give an extra 5,000 miles a transaction for the efficiency and warm fuzzy. At Polyface, we’re committed to never having a robot answer the phone.
To be continued...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Scaling up without selling your soul - Part 7


Numerous people have encouraged Polyface to become the Tyson of pastured poultry. But one of the distinguishing characteristics of an environmentally friendly farm compared to one that doesn’t care about the environment is how it handles the waste stream. In Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), including large processing plants, the waste stream overpowers the surrounding ecology, the landscape. That’s why they stink to high heavens.

But beyond that, waste must be carted all over the countryside to get it spread out because the nearby land simply cannot metabolize all that waste. In many places, feedlots, hog factories, and chicken houses generate 10 times the waste that can be ecologically metabolized on the land where the CAFO is located. Manure, guts, blood, feathers and whatever enter the global trafficking channels rather than staying where they were generated. Imagine if every time you swept your house and emptied your trash, you had so much that it spilled out of your yard and cascaded into your neighbor’s yard? Now you see why the industrial-sized butcher, baker, and candlestick maker have been kicked out of the village and banished to highly rural, out-of-sight areas.

As we’ve expanded at Polyface, we’ve carefully defined the ecological carrying capacity and refuse to haul manure or waste anywhere. This forces us to decentralize, stay divested across the landscape, and remain aesthetically and aromatically attractive.

We provide a habitat that allows each plant and animals to fully express its physiological distinctiveness—i.e. the pigness of the pig. In our Graeco-Roman western linear reductionist compartmentalized fragmented individualistic systematized disconnected paradigm, plants and animals are just inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly the human mind can conceive to manipulate them. I suggest that a society which disrespects and dishonors the pigness of the pig to that extent will also view its citizens with an equivalent egocentric manipulative mindset—and other cultures. It’s how we respect and honor the least of these that creates an ethical, moral foundation upon which we honor and respect the greatest of these.

The beginning of civilization is civil, or civility. The hog industry right now is using our tax dollars to figure out how to pull the stress gene out of pigs so that we can abuse them more aggressively but they won’t mind. Talk about being uncivilized.The local ecology includes the workforce. When industrial processing plants overpower a community with low paid foreign workers, it destroys the community ecology. A business that can’t or won’t hire its neighbors due to poor working conditions, low pay, repetitive motion sickness, or anything else, is not neighbor friendly. Redesigning the business to fit, to nest into the local ecology takes innovation, but anything less will create social, environmental, and pathogenic upheavals.

This principle is one of the reasons why those of us in the healing food movement say our food is the cheapest on the planet: because we don’t externalize costs to society. Ours may carry a higher sticker price, but all the costs are figured in. We’re not destroying groundwater, giving someone food borne illness, or stinking up the neighborhood. Appreciating our landscape and people resource ecology and staying within those parameters is simply foundational to being a good citizen.
To be continued...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scaling up without selling your soul - Part 6


Amazingly, even the largest companies in the world still receive more than 50 percent of their business by word-of-mouth recommendation. That’s quite astounding when you think about $1 million 30-second Super Bowl ads.

At Polyface, we’ve built our customer base on rewarded customers. Whenever we get a new customer, our first question is not: “What would you like to buy?”, but rather: “Where did you hear about us?” We reward our evangelists with free product. Our culture is starved for appreciation. If we would shower our good customers with gratitude, they will hand pick our next patron base, prescreened and motivated.

Word of mouth may not be flash-in-the-pan patron building, but it always gets the best quality customer. Only good customers are good for business; bad customers are a drain. If new customers aren’t coming, I don’t assume advertising is the answer. I assume my product or service aren’t where they ought to be; they aren’t compelling another wave to join us. I assume if we’re in a slump, our marketing offense is probably poor quality and service, not an anemic advertising budget.

By now, some of you may be either livid with these ideas or taking on air in disbelief that somebody this radical would dare address you—especially if you run an ad agency. Not to worry. Only 1-3 percent of businesses are on the lunatic fringe—that’s me. And only 10 percent innovate, so your future is assured serving the 90 percent of businesses who will dismiss me as a lunatic. To those 90 percent, I simply say: thanks for giving me niche and value security.

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Scaling up without selling your soul - Part 5


While this may sound like sacrilege and we all know how growing businesses are starved for cash, consider how many have lost the edge of their good qualities after suddenly becoming flush with cash. I’ll be honest that I haven’t figured out how all this looks yet in a capitalistic society, but I know the danger of huge cash infusions.

At Polyface, we’ve been starved for cash more years than not. And yet that is exactly what makes us innovative—we’re hungry. And when we’re hungry, we’re much more creative. When we need some capital, we appeal to our patrons to give us short-term no interest loans and they love to invest in something noble. It’s more satisfying than just writing a check to Nature Conservancy. We helped our little Amish feed mill get up and going with a two-year no-interest loan several years ago. Best investment we ever made. You can’t ask someone else to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, so this established a precedent of caring investment rather than just interest-return investment.

If your product or service is good enough and your mission noble enough and your cause life-changing enough, you can find other ways to raise capital besides an IPO. This slower, more relationally oriented, pay-as-you-go growth is inherently more organic. Growing from the inside out rather than the outside in follows the natural pattern. Plants and animals can’t grow beyond their ecological resource base. When we violate that principle in nature, we get lots of growth and no quality. Chemical-fertilized hybrid corn contains way less protein and 7 fewer enzymes than open pollinated, compost-fertilized varieties. You just get more bushels of junk.

Being satisfied with organic growth keeps us real. If this one principle were used across America’s business landscape, we would probably have fewer corporate scandals. Meteoric rises usually result in meteoric falls, so beware fast cash and the imbalance it usually creates. My dad had a saying for it: “Overrunning your headlights.” He also said to beware of people “born with a big auger.”

To be continued...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Scaling up without selling your soul - part 4


We do everything possible to not have employees. I don’t mean we’re against help, or against teams. But I’m a fan of bonuses and commissions. I don’t even believe in child allowances—nobody should get paid for breathing.

Most farms going through a growth phase similar to ours would simply hire minimum wage workers. But we have attempted, and for the most part succeeded, in building in a commission-based package for every position. When our daughter-in-law took over restaurant sales, we put her on a commission. Our delivery driver receives a commission per pound delivered, above a guaranteed floor. Both of those positions, therefore, receive a reward for watching for new customers and taking care of existing ones.

We use independent growers who are on a per piece pay scale. That way they can work hard and or more conscientiously, and earn more. When we hired an apprentice manager, he also took on the tour guide role and we share 50/50 in that income. Yes, he gets a floor salary, but also enjoys building an independent business within this framework. The income earning potential is open ended.

Can you imagine what would happen in America’s public schools if graduates who had been out for, say, ten years, could rate their teachers and the top ten percent received a $50,000 bonus check? And the bottom ten percentile were fired?

I suggest that rather than spend a bunch of money on trendy advertising and catchy PR firms, why not redesign job descriptions to create such an enthusiastic workforce that we wouldn’t need to hire ad agencies or PR firms? We live in a culture that loves minimalism and just-get-by-ism. I think too often we create that spirit by being too timid to innovate our compensation packages so that eager beavers get more than a pat on the back. I have no wage or salary aspirations, and keep my remuneration just a few percentage points above the heavy lifters in our business. What would I do with all that money, anyway? I’d rather go the grave a pauper but loved by my people, than go wealthy and unloved. Perhaps if more CEOs were less materialistic, their workforce would also show more noble values.

To be continued...
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