Editor’s Note: In this Industry Interview, Forrest Roberts, former CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), discusses the dynamic cattle business with Kirk Augustine, President/CEO of FORAYs Inc.
Kirk Augustine: How long were you at the NCBA, and what was the motivation to leave 18 years of experience in pharma companies like Upjohn, Pharmacia, Pfizer (now Zoetis) and Elanco, to lead an industry trade organization?
Forrest Roberts: I was honored to serve as the CEO of NCBA for the last six-and-a-half years. The opportunity to lead the organization that represents the U.S. beef industry precipitated from my 10-year involvement with NCBA’s Allied Industry Council and other volunteer leadership roles during my tenure with animal health pharma companies. Based on conversations with several key beef industry leaders, they encouraged me to consider the CEO role at NCBA in the fall of 2008. As I learned more about this career opportunity, one thing became very clear in that the role was bigger than one person, one company or one brand. In fact, to learn, understand and drive consumer preference for beef made leading the organization a true opportunity of a lifetime.
Augustine: As a beef industry leader, you managed through a pretty dynamic period in the U.S. and global beef business. Can you help our readers understand the anchor strategies that helped you guide your members and constituents through your time as CEO?
Roberts: Anchor strategies is a good way to describe the beef industry and organizational need in early 2009. From the beginning, it was apparent that the organization was ready for a really focused strategic plan. We identified core areas of focus around which to “ground” ourselves and the framework from which we would make organizational business decisions and commit resources. Most importantly, we had to define what was in scope and then discipline ourselves to make trade-off decisions, just like successful businesses do every day!
Our theme for this strategic plan was defined as “Building Trust – Building Growth” in all areas of the gate-toplate beef value chain. This theme had to be fueled by defining and developing a foundation of trust with relationships at all levels of the beef value chain. From there we could further define scope in the following areas:
• Build financial stability for the organization beyond funding the day-to-day operations through achieving cash reserve targets for each division.
• Develop a unified, science based approach to engage with policy makers to ensure our voices were heard and provided beef producers the necessary freedom to operate, responsibly.
• Transform how we create a dialogue with targeted beef consumer influencers utilizing a digital communications strategy that increased preference for beef.
• Grow market access for beef and beef products into key international markets around the world.
Augustine: I tend to think of the beef cattle market in several segments; 1) cow/calf, 2) stocker/backgrounder, 3) feedlot, 4) dairy crossover (i.e. culls and bull calves). Can you share some experiences from working with each of these segments?
Roberts: This area provided some of the most rewarding experiences of my tenure at NCBA. For every segment of the beef value chain, it is critical to understand their business drivers, what’s important to them and how they add value from gate-to-plate. Once the connection to value was established, our focus was all about communication, collaboration and coordination in a manner that built trust, resulting in a greater ability for our beef community to speak with one, unified voice. This area of my responsibility was rewarding because it also allowed me to build working relationships and a deeper understanding with some tremendous people in our industry.
Augustine: Thinking about our industry colleagues in the field who call-on and service cattlemen and their veterinarians it is often hard to see how a trade organization impacts or helps their business. What should they know about the beef industry as they have discussions with their customers?
Roberts: It is easy to get caught-up in the concerns around drought, changing market values and the newest market noise. While it is important for anyone engaged in the beef industry to be aware of the key issues impacting the market, it is even more critical in today’s fast moving world for us to understand the real drivers of beef demand. We must cherish our strength in that consumers around the world crave the taste of high-quality U.S. beef.
With that in mind, consumers have four main drivers or preferences regarding beef: 1) price; 2) safety; 3) nutritional value; 4) image of beef production. Collectively, we can positively influence consumer preference through advocacy efforts, especially, in the area of communicating with them about how the beef eating experience was produced, and is why it is so important to link our actions with the expectations of today’s beef consumer. That brand promise includes proper animal health practices, compliance with audit and verification standards, as well as a valid veterinarian-client relationship.
That said, I believe there is unprecedented opportunity for growth in consumer preference for beef, especially in the diets of older millennials. Furthermore and based on today’s beef cow herd of approximately 29.5 million head, we could easily need an additional 4 million beef cows added into our U.S. production system to meet this growth in beef demand.
Therefore, by building trust with this consumer audience and their influencers, we have the opportunity to build growth for our industry and all the stakeholders who provide valuable products and services.
Augustine: A lot of initiatives or topics seem strategically important to food safety, yet we routinely seem to get split or polarized around these initiatives. From your career experiences can you lend some insight on avoiding polarization?
Roberts: Polarization occurs for three main reasons: 1) lack of information/knowledge, 2) lack of trust and 3) personal agendas. To avoid the “ruts” of polarization I think it is critical (regardless of your role) to stay engaged. Attend area events and read information to remain informed. Learn what the issues are and what solutions are available. Talk with people about their perspectives and share credible information vs. arguing. Growing confidence and knowledge in areas that can be volatile is critical to building trust in our industry’s efforts to produce protein for a growing global population.
I was fortunate to help build and be involved in two good examples of engagement; the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance ( www.fooddialogues.com/about-usfra ) and the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (http://grsbeef.org/).
The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) consists of more than 80 farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners representing virtually all aspects of agriculture, working together to engage in dialogue with consumers who have questions about how today’s food is grown and raised. USFRA is committed to continuous improvement and supporting U.S. farmers and ranchers effortsto increase confidence and trust intoday’s agriculture.
The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative developed to advance continuous improvement in sustainability of the global beef value chain through leadership, science and multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration. The GRSB envisions a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.
GRSB is the strategic platform where leading organizations from across the beef industry, come together to advance continuous improvement in sustainability of the global beef value chain through sharing their knowledge of leadership, science and through multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.
Augustine: Looking forward, what areas of animal health or food production might be part of your career path?
Roberts: Thank you for asking. Yes, I am currently looking at several opportunities across various segments in agribusiness and expect to make a next step career decision in the near future. So, absolutely, I am looking forward to remaining engaged in our industry.