From a distance, it looked more like Ted Muir was being worked over by a street gang.
As someone involved in those media scrums with the Manitoba Pork Council general manager back in the 1990s, we would surround him so tightly he could barely raise an arm in self-defense.
Questions landed like blows: a backhanded slap here, a gut-punch-and-upper-cut combo there, followed by a right cross to the kisser. Muir, sweating under the hot television lights, absorbed the blows but didn’t go down. He wobbled a few times but never left his feet.
The hog sector “was under the microscope, there’s no question about that,” Muir, the former pork council general manager, says today.
But he laughed at this observer’s recollection, saying it wasn’t as bad as it may have seemed. “It was one of the best, most fulfilling jobs I had in my life,” he said of the post he held from 1994 – 2004.
Contrary to what some people may believe, Muir wasn’t forced to take the job at gunpoint. Muir had experience defending another worthwhile endeavor from false accusations. He was a lead voice for the province in support of Ducks Unlimited’s Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre. It would be an environmental catastrophe, protestors shouted back in the 1990s when the project was proposed, not the world class waterfowl refuge, wetland preserve, and education centre we see today. Muir was hired by the pork council for his background in environmental stewardship.
However, he still recalls his wife’s disbelief when he told her he was leaving his job at the province’s wildlife branch because he felt he could help Manitoba pork producers get across their message.
“Where are you going again?” Muir quoted her saying at the time. “And what connection is there between ducks and being Mr. Nice Guy, and dealing with the most controversial agricultural issue in Manitoba’s history?”
She certainly got that right: the dramatic hog expansion and the public’s fear of odor and environmental impact made the hog expansion of the 1990s and 2000s the biggest farm controversy–and the longest-running–Manitoba has ever seen. Muir was entering the lion’s den, and there wasn’t just one feline waiting but an entire pride. Fortunately, hog producers back then like Maurice Hacault decided the industry would hold its ground rather than run and hide. So producers like Hacault, aided by administrative staff Muir and Larry Sedgwick and later Andrew Dickson, took their shots while patiently trying to explain their industry. There were even courses for the board of directors on how to deal with media and get their message across.
It was an amazing expansion that fueled public fears and protest, and sometimes prompted legislators to act on fears instead of facts. The pork sector went from producing two million hogs per year in Manitoba in the early 1990s, to eight million today.
Manitoba now finishes about five million hogs to full market weight, and ships about three million to finishing barns in the United States. That works out to $1.1 billion in farm cash receipts to farmers, and another about $2 billion in meat manufacturing sales, for a total economic benefit to Manitoba of $3 billion.
In fact, hogs are one of the most important farm sector in the province along with canola and wheat. In 2020, canola generated $1.6 billion in farm cash receipts, wheat generated $1.1 million and grain and oilseed manufacturing sales were $1.1 billion.
The hog sector “has gone from a pretty important industry to being a pretty critical part of the Manitoba economy,” said Andrew Dickson, Manitoba Pork general manager who retired in early 2021.
Even so, while eight million hogs puts Manitoba ahead of Quebec in production, it’s a far cry from North American pork leader, Iowa, which produces more than 40 million hogs per year. Iowa and southern Minnesota combined produce half the hogs in the United States.
The increase in hog production led to expanded processing in Manitoba—and expanded processing led to an increase in hogs. Manitoba is home to two major processing plants: Maple Leaf in Brandon and HyLife in Neepawa. The $112-million Brandon plant opened in 1999, and an existing plant in Neepawa was later purchased by HyLife, completely gutted and rebuilt to more than double its previous capacity.
That meant jobs. Maple Leaf in Brandon, and its bacon plant on Lagimodiere Boulevard and Marion Street in Winnipeg, and the HyLife plant in Neepawa, account for about 5,000 jobs.
The hog sector is responsible for about 14,000 direct and indirect jobs in Manitoba, according to Manitoba Pork.
It wasn’t automatic that hog processing would be built in Manitoba. Alberta had other ideas and tried to lure pork processors with subsidies to locate within its borders the way it had with beef processing. Manitoba didn’t want a repeat of the loss of its beef processing and stepped up its game. The province’s commitment included most of the funding to build new water and sewage treatment facilities in Brandon to accommodate the Maple Leaf plant. Similar funding for water and sewage was later provided to accommodate the HyLife plant in Neepawa.
In turn, grants to expand those services allowed Brandon and Neepawa to grow. The plants needed labour and they didn’t have it locally. That revved up immigration into those communities where there had been little previously. Brandon’s population increased from under 40,000 in 2000, to about 50,000 by 2020, thanks in large part to Maple Leaf. Neepawa had 3,300 people in 2006 and was approaching 5,000 by 2020.
Part of the driver of hog expansion was supposed to be the termination of the Crows Nest Pass Freight Rate in the mid 1990s; producers received a lump sum payment in place of the historic transportation subsidy. Some economists—and politicians citing economists—predicted Manitoba’s livestock sector would organically expand because removing the freight subsidy would make feed less inexpensive here. Manitoba is farthest from port, so backing off the full freight cost from the price of cereal grains would make for the cheapest feed grains in the country.
“What were they smoking?” was the question people asked when reality set in. The economic theory proved to be a complete fallacy. The returns on barley and feed wheat were so poor that farmers stopped growing those crops and grew something else instead. Manitoba hog producers ended up having to import feed like corn and soy meal on a scale never seen before, said Dickson. Corn came in from the United States and feed barley and wheat from as distant as northern Saskatchewan.
The main reason for the expansion was the culture of hog production that existed in Manitoba, particularly in the southeast. About a third of Manitoba’s hog barns are in the southeast, where communities are more accustomed to livestock odors, and about a quarter of hog barns are on Hutterite colonies scattered across the province, said Dickson.
Under supply management, the poultry sector, also significant in the southeast, started to expand to today’s levels in large barns with ventilation systems and automation. Hog producers saw the trend and copied it. They also saw the scaling up that was taking place in hog barns south of the border, said Dickson. It was part of the economies of scale, facilitated by technology, that was taking over all industries, and now it was reaching into livestock production.
Then there were feed mills, which are more economic if run 24/7, so they started buying weanlings and putting them into finishing barns to increase feed sales. And then there were the new pork processing facilities that needed not just volume but steady volume to cover their investment.
That led to greater vertical integration. “Vertically integrated” in the 1990s meant a feed mill owning the pig barn. In the 2000s, it meant the two largest processors Maple Leaf and HyLife owning the barn, the pigs, the feed, and the farm site the barn was on; and the people tending to the animals were employees who lived off the barn site and drove to work every day like any other employee for any other company. Today, Maple Leaf owns Maple Leaf Agri-Farms, which owns pig barns, the barn site, the animals and the feed that’s fed to the animals from its feed mill.
Maple Leaf’s reasoning is it wants a steady, reliable supply chain, and the way to do that is to control it. It’s not economical to have the hog supply go up and down like a yo-yo. The plants want that control so they aren’t undersupplied some days and have the production line sitting in the lunchroom playing cribbage all day, and they don’t want days where they are so oversupplied that staff can’t manage the volume.
So Maple Leaf and HyLife now source a large part of their production from their own barns. The people operating their barns are paid wages and collect benefits and pension like a regular employee.
That has seen the number of independently owned pig barns take a high dive off the La Quebrada, the world’s highest peak for cliff divers. Vertical integration saw pig numbers soar, and the number of hog farmers plunge. There were 6,000 hog farms in Manitoba in 1976, versus 600 in 2020, according to the Canada Pork Council. Many producers retired, many weren’t prepared to become bigger, many found the increasing regulation too difficult and costly, and the two processing companies bought them up. The de facto moratorium also stymied many producers. About half of today’s 600 farms are owned by Maple Leaf or HyLife, which leaves only about 300 independent pork producers left in the province. (The 2016 Canada Census found about 260 independent pork producers. Between 2006 and 2016, two out of every three (65 per cent) hog farmers exited the business.)
Fewer hog farms with more hogs makes sense if you followed the economies of the Western world in recent decades. Hog farms got much larger. The total number of hogs per hog farm in Manitoba at any one time has risen from 400 in 1991, to more than 5,000 today. That’s more than double the average farm size of the next largest hog producing province, Quebec.
Hog expansion scared a large segment of the population. Dickson estimates he attended about 200 conditional use hearings for new hog barns or hog barn expansion, and estimates there were another 300 he didn’t attend. The hearings were a necessary part of industry expansion but debate often turned incendiary, from blow dryers to blow torches in intensity.
A byproduct of pig production is manure, and lots of it. Manure is not a waste to be disposed of but a very valuable fertilizer that can be recycled on crop fields and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. In Manitoba, by law, any manure that is applied to land must be as a fertilizer for crop production. Pig manure application is often very high tech, with draglines, computers in the cab, on the go mapping, etc. And many applicators have very specialised, modern equipment. It is not without its challenges, however.
Don Flaten, University of Manitoba soil scientist, said all livestock manure has the potential to cause environmental damage but hogs have been singled out by the public and legislators more than poultry or dairy or beef sectors. “That translates into what I call prejudicial regulatory attention,” said Flaten. Exhibit A: the de facto moratorium on hog expansion that started as a temporary ban in 2006, became a moratorium in the Red River Valley, southeast and Interlake in 2008, and then blanketed the province until it was removed in 2017. Exhibit B: hog producers submited more rigorously detailed manure management plans before other livestock operations. “Livestock manure needs to be managed carefully regardless of what species produces it,” said Flaten.
But the hog industry has more stigma than other livestock farms, perhaps because of the smell of operations. An agricultural bureaucrat once told Flaten hog producers needed to put a flock of sheep in their field where people driving by can see them. That way people would blame the odor on the sheep and not protest, or at least not complain as loudly.
Phosphorus is the big environmental concern for its potential to run into waterways, and eventually Lake Winnipeg, and feed blue-green algae blooms, which deplete oxygen levels that fish need to survive. The problem is crops binge eat nitrogen versus phosphorus. Crops will consume three times as much nitrogen as phosphorus. So for plants to get enough nitrogen from manure, a producer has to overapply phosphorus. When this is done for a number of years, soil phosphorus levels build up and this increases the risk of phosphorus being released in runoff. To address this, Manitoba has regulated soil phosphorus levels. As soil phosphorus builds, application rates or the frequency of manure application must be reduced.
By Flaten’s calculation, as little as one per cent of phosphorus flowing into Lake Winnipeg may come from fields where hog manure was applied. That’s not much different than spring runoff of phosphorus from fields where artificial fertilizers are applied. (Flaten estimates that one to two per cent of phosphorus in the lake comes from hog manure but that is before subtracting the fact that artificial fertilizers would only be used in their place, and would also leak phosphorus.) By comparison, five times as much phosphorus is flushed into Lake Winnipeg from City of Winnipeg toilets, according to the most recent Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board figures. In fact, Winnipeg is the only city in the Lake Winnipeg watershed from Calgary to the Canadian Shield without a proper phosphorus removal system for its waste, said Flaten.
Public scrutiny remains intense on the hog sector, more so than other livestock, even though the science shows Manitoba producers are among the best managers of hog barns from an environmental standpoint in North America. “There is a series of regulations on the type and timing and rates of manure application that are probably the most stringent in North America,” Flaten said. Similar regulations are now applied to all manure, making for a “rational, science-based approach” in Manitoba.
In the old days, there was something called a rain gun and a hog producer would just spray the manure across the field and it could drift beyond the field. People feared that scenario would be 10 times worse with the new industrial barns.
That doesn’t happen in Manitoba anymore. Both liquid and solid manure must be buried into the soil in areas susceptible to spring runoff. Liquid manure is injected whereas solid manure is spread on a field and than worked in with a cultivator. This greatly reduces odor and stymies runoff. The injection or incorporation of manure was made into law in 2006 where manure is applied in the fall and there is a high probability of runoff, like in the Red River Valley, but many farmers were already doing it by then.
As well, medium and large operations are required to document their manure management, receive approval, and then document their application, and the province can audit any farm to determine that it meets the regulatory soil nitrogen limits.
One bonus to liquid manure application here is the flatness of the land, said Petra Loro, livestock environment specialists with Manitoba Agriculture.
“It’s a huge advantage,” said Loro. “The topography allows for different equipment options. It allows producers the option of flexible drag lines, which have a whole pile of advantages: you aren’t using tankers, you’re not compacting the soil.” There’s also much less wear and tear on the roads and it is much faster.
The drag line hoses for liquid manure can extend several kilometres. A pumping station is set up at the manure storage site, and the manure is agitated to mix in the solids at the bottom and pumped through hoses to the target field. Booster pumps can be added along the way to keep manure moving. The hoses aren’t supposed to cross roads and can be threaded through culverts.
That’s how most hog manure is spread in Manitoba, and many dairy farms use a similar system. Most hog operations don’t want to buy and store all the equipment for once-a-year applications so they hire a commercial applicator company. The province requires commercial manure pplicators to be trained and licensed, which is another piece of Manitoba’s stringent regulatory policy. Usually, hog manure is applied in the fall, so commercial applicators are kept very busy for that short season. “When the crop comes off, they go 24 hours a day until the ban on winter spreading. They’ll start in late August and go right up to Nov. 10,” Loro said.
Tankers are sometimes used, particularly if manure has to travel a greater distance.
“We have the most stringent regulations,” said Loro. “If you look across the country you see similarities but when you talk to staff and ask how they administer their regulation, that’s where the difference really jumps out. There’s no other province where all the manure management plans with soil tests are submitted to government and government reviews them and enters them into a computer and keeps records. That’s unique to us.”
The same goes for engineering standards for manure storage structures. “The testing is way more difficult in Manitoba,” said Loro. “It’s how these regulations are administered that is, I think, superior.”
On the land-use planning side, the environmental review occurs right at the start during conditional use approvals. That also stands out across the country.
“Our process is extremely intense: lots of steps, three different opportunities for public input. So if members of public are nervous about livestock operations? We have the best. It starts at the beginning and there is ongoing oversight all the way along.”
A hog application also has to obtain approval from three different government areas: municipal relations, environment and agriculture. It’s very expensive and time-consuming for livestock producers.
“I’m on the ag side of things and my view is, Holy cow! It’s a lot! We don’t do this for any other development. Why do we do this with livestock? Because they’ve got a bad rap? Because they expanded quickly in the 90s? Because of something that happened in North Carolina?” said Loro.
“The flip side is public trust. You say to the public, ‘Yeah, we have the most stringent regulations and it’s not just oversight but starts right in the planning stages.'”
Odor complaints go to the Manitoba Farm Industry Board, which investigates whether an operation is following acceptable, widely-used industry practices.
A lot of the controversy over hog barns has dissipated in recent years, said Dickson. Producers are putting more consideration into placing the barns farther from neighbours, building shelterbelts, covering manure storage tanks, applying manure just once a year and injecting it into the soil. “There’s still the odd controversy but nowhere near what it was,” Dickson said.
ONE OF THE positive stories to come out of the hog sector in recent years is an operation near Roblin owned by Henrik Thomsen.
Thomsen, 47, came over from Denmark in 2006 to manage a hog barn for a dozen Danish investors, who were hog producers themselves. The company is called Canmark Family Farming Ltd., an amalgam of names Canada and Denmark. Thomsen ran the operation for several years but the consortium had also opened a hog barn in Romania that was proving more profitable, so they were looking to dump the Roblin location. It was his, they told Thomsen, if he could come up with the capital, which he managed to do.
In 2018, with the province lifting prohibition on the hog sector, he decided to expand. Of course, the process to obtain a conditional use permit to expand a hog barn is arduous, to say the least. Dickson, representing the pork council, traveled to the hearing to lend support, as he often did over the course of his career. When he checked into the hotel, the clerk asked him if he was in town for the hearing. Yes, Dickson replied somewhat guardedly, because you never know where the next onslaught of public fear and hysteria is going to come from.
The woman began lavishing praise on Thomsen. “She says, ‘Oh, we’re so pleased with Henrik. He’s done so much good for this community.'”
Dickson attended the council meeting that evening. Not only did council vote to approve Thomsen’s conditional use permit, there wasn’t the grumbling and sour faces in the audience that often accompanies such hearings. Instead, something very surprising happened, said Dickson. People broke into applause.
“They all clapped!” recalled Dickson. “I was stunned.”
“Henrik is well loved in the community. He’s hired all kinds of people, expanded the business and the community is very pleased with him.”
They are the stories the public needs to hear: the highly stringent regulatory process, the positive impact businesses have on the communities, the positive people behind those businesses.
Thomsen’s story, as previously stated, began in Denmark, where his parents ran a hog and grain farm.
The Danish farmers invested in the Roblin hog operation after calculating it was one of the cheapest places to raise hogs, he explained. They bought 1,800 sows and opened a farrow-to-finish farm. But things didn’t go as planned, and the operation struggled.
Thomsen obtained a degree in agriculture from the Bygholm Agricultural College in Denmark, and had worked on several hog farms. When the post came open in Roblin in 2006, Thomsen decided to take the leap and move to Canada.
“He came over with nothing,” Dickson said. “He came over as a barn manager. These Danish farmers who worked as a co-op weren’t happy with the performance of their investment and brought him in.”
By 2013, the Danish investors had grown tired of the Roblin operation and prepared to sell, but gave Thomsen first chance at it. “You know, I really liked it here in Canada, and I liked Roblin. So I didn’t have to think about it for very long,” he said. Raising capital was difficult through commercial channels but Farm Credit Corporation showed faith in him.
Thomsen inherited a staff of about 20 workers, including some foreign workers from the Philippines. He initially housed them at the barn site 30 kilometres outside Roblin, but the internet service was poor and the workers didn’t have vehicles. So Thomsen solved that by buying an abandoned hotel in town and converting it into a living space for 12 people. He also bought a bus to transport workers to and from the hog site.
In 2018, he decided he had to expand. It was either go big or go home. “The big ones get big in a hurry and the small ones disappear,” he said. “We had to decide whether we want to be in business, or just wear everything down and get out.” He already had 20 employees running the 1,800-sow operation. He wanted to add another 3,900 sows and create 12 new jobs.
“Our expanding process went really smoothly,” said Thomsen. That’s not something you hear every day in the hog industry. It cost $14 million, including new showers and staff rooms for employees. It also includes $620,000 for an apartment for another dozen foreign workers in Roblin, beside the refurbished hotel.
About a third of his 32 staff are foreign workers, he said, with six more scheduled to arrive in 2021. Some of the workers also stay on at his premises after they leave the company, he explained.
In addition to his operations near Roblin, Thomsen has feeder barns in Gilbert Plains and Swan River. He also has his own feedmill and buys a lot of grain from local farmers. “We’re an alternative to the grain elevator,” he said. “Sometimes they have a feed grain that can’t make it for export.”
Thomsen has opted to build group housing for his sows, like those that have become standard in European Union since 2013, although not all EU members are complying. In Canada, group housing is to be mandatory by 2029 but some restaurant chains like McDonald’s will stop purchasing from operations using sow stalls by 2022, and others like Wendy’s and Tim Hortons plan similar measures.
“Even I could see as a producer in some ways it’s kind of a sad life standing in a stall,” he said.
(Thomsen is not alone. For example, the two largest pork producers, Maple Leaf and HyLife, have already transitioned more than 50,000 sows to the new group housing system in Manitoba.)
Now, Canmark has 30 sows per pen. Hogs can be very rough on each other as they establish a chain of command. Sows are kept in stalls for four to five weeks after mating to prevent an abortion before they are released into the open pens.
Some systems put a computer chip into an ear tag on every sow to control rations in highly computerized feeding stations. Thomsen chose a simpler system designed in Denmark that includes large spaces and dividers at the troughs to keep them apart “so they can’t push each other around.”
They still clash occasionally but it’s kept to a minimum. “They want to find out who’s the strongest, who’s the boss. When they get that first initial fighting out, then that pen is quiet after that. It’s not like they’re fighting all the time.”
He’s noticed a difference.
“They’re more calm and much easier to move when we move them around the system into farrowing where they have the babies. Their natural behaviour comes out much more,” Thomsen said.
“They’re fun creatures because even though they fight when we let them out into the pen, they’re very social. When they sleep, they all curl up in a long row. They might fight in the morning but when it’s time to go to bed, they get along.”
Cleanliness is another feature of Thomsen’s hog barns, said Dickson. “His place is super clean. Everything is in the right spot. There’s no mess. He wants the place to look like something out of Europe.”
Said Thomsen, “Usually when the yard looks nice, the rest is looked after, too.”
And how’s it going so far? Dickson recalled a conversation with Thomsen. “He said to me, ‘I love this place. This is a great place to live. This is the best place to raise pigs.'”
“It may be a big word to say that I’m having a blast, but it’s close,” Thomsen said. “Sometimes there are challenges and COVID has been hard on us but I think I will come out of this year (2020) with black numbers. So far, I’ve had black numbers since I took over.”
ONE THING OFTEN said about farmers is they want options.
Too often they feel held captive by a single railway or grain company or processor.
Farmers are capitalists, of course. But when push comes to shove, they don’t care if it’s capitalism or Marxism, they’ll pick whatever gives them the most choice to sell and move product to market.
(People may think marketing boards disprove the rule but single desk sellers are largely a response to lack of choice, so why not form a collective that gives more marketing power in that setting? As this was being written, some hog producers in Alberta were campaigning to form a marketing board. You wouldn’t think it stands a chance, it being Alberta, but who knows?)
The same held true for three brothers from La Broquerie, Paul, Denis and Claude Vielfaure and outside partner Don Janzen. They were just looking for more options to sell their pigs. Their pursuit would turn into one of the most successful farm stories in Manitoba history. They sold their company, HyLife, for half a billion dollars in 2019. (Paul had left the company by then due to multiple sclerosis.)
Claude and the two brothers started in 1980 with a hog farm they bought from their father and another one they had built. They brought in Don Janzen, a poultry farmer in the area, in 1994, and that was really the start of HyLife, said Claude, the former president and designated spokesman of the ownership group.
The problem to their minds was there wasn’t enough competition for their hogs. They had little marketing choice. They started out selling about 60 pigs a week to Elite Swine, before it was taken over by Maple Leaf. They didn’t like being held captive and decided to diversify. In 1997, they built their first sow barn and began selling 50-pounders to the United States but felt too dependent on that market, too. A year later they built their first finishing barn. They began selling to Maple Leaf.
“We really only had Maple Leaf or we had to travel seven hours to the U.S. plant,” said Claude. “We really didn’t have a lot of options, except for Maple Leaf at the time, and we decided we wanted more options.” There’s that word again.
As Claude explained, they never planned to form a giant company. It happened during the process of trying not to become reliant on any one commercial outlet. They didn’t feel comfortable with one company having so much control over their livelihoods.
They began vertical integration early. By the early 2000s, their company, by then named Hytek Ltd., had its own feed mill, veterinarian service division and genetics company, and was building more barns.
“We were very, very small and just kept investing and at one point we looked at it and said, ‘This is starting to be pretty big. Let’s keep going. We’re having fun.’ So we kept going.”
By the mid-2000s, they decided to get into processing and formed an alliance with Olymel in Quebec, and Big Sky Farms Inc. out of Saskatchewan (it was purchased by Olymel in 2013) to build a $200-million processing plant in St. Boniface Industrial Park in Winnipeg.
“We wanted to become a food company, not just a commodity pig production company,” said Claude. “We just thought it would bring more value to our company and more stable returns. With pig production, we all know it’s very cyclical. Every four years it seemed we saw prices crash. So we were looking at making our returns a little more stable, so getting into the food market selling meat would stabilize our returns.”
It was an exhaustive two-to-three-year process and didn’t end well for Hytek, a company that was accustomed to success. Public fears over possible odor and increased traffic kiboshed their plans in Winnipeg. But Hytek partners dusted themselves off and moved to Plan B.
In 2008, Hytek bought the small Springhill Farms kill plant owned by Hutterite colonies just outside Neepawa. The company’s only concern with a smaller community like Neepawa was the labour market—were there enough people to fill the jobs? The company hired locally initially but began taking in foreign workers as their labour demands grew. The workforce of 280 doubled in the first three years to 600 employees. They invested mountains of cash to modernize and expand and the plant now employs about 1,600 people.
In 2010, it rebranded as HyLife Foods, still headquartered in La Broquerie, to open more sales options as a food company and not just be viewed as a pork processor. It continued to find niche markets and expand sales to Asian markets.
In 2019, a Thai company made the company an offer the partners couldn’t refuse. Charoen Pokphand Foods (CP Foods), the world’s third-largest pig production company, purchased HyLife for CDN$498 million. HyLife had a total of 2,500 employees, 2,000 of them in Manitoba. The new owner’s closer links to the Asian market should make for a bright future for the company and pork industry in Manitoba, analysts say.
Claude was only 55 at the end of 2020, an early retirement, for sure, but what a severance package. Denis is slightly older, and Janzen is nearly 70. Claude said he plans to do some investing in the future.
Keys to success? That was easy, said Claude. The staff. People like Grant Lazarus and Henry Van De Velde were with them from the start. Lazarus is now president and CEO and the company continues to perform strongly. Heading into 2021, the plant had an exemplary record at preventing a COVID-19 outbreak that disrupted many competing meat packing plants. For example, all employees were required to carry electronic badges that recorded everyone they came into contact with at the plant, an important tool in traceability should someone contract the virus.
Claude makes the building of HyLife sound easy. Wasn’t there ever any drama in the boardroom? Threats to walk out, tantrums by a partner, a messy personal scandal hitting the tabloids?
No, it was pretty quiet, said Claude.
“You know what? You hear lots of stories about boardrooms. We would all get along so well, and we were all good friends, and we hired good people.”
And when markets turned against them and they had to weather tough times?
“Boy, we’d get into the boardroom and talk things through and we all had our opinions, but nobody was hard one way or the other, and we always came out united,” he said.
“We always joke: I don’t think we ever had a vote in the boardroom. It was always by consensus. We’d talk it through and say this is where we’re going and it makes sense so let’s do it.”