View From The Top: Q & A with William J. Even CEO, National Pork Board

March 29, 2017 02:01 AM

What do you see as the greatest challenges facing U.S. pork producers this year?
No. 1 is the change in the pork industry because of growth. Packing plants are being built, renovated and converted. We haven’t seen this kind of activity in 25 to 30 years. Producers are investing in modern barns, the latest in equipment and sustainable animal care.

It’s exciting to see. The challenge, though, is that growth is not costless. Some of the new plants involve consortiums of producers partnering with existing packers, or sometimes going on their own, or integrating from the production level up through the supply chain. 

This is different from what we saw in the ’80s and ’90s, where the packing level integrated down through the supply chain. As new entities and consortiums enter the marketplace, relationships and business structures are going to change. 

Another top challenge we face is quality improvement of pork. U.S. pork production includes the responsible use of antibiotics; the flavor, taste and versatility of the product; and education about proper cooking temperatures and animal welfare. A whole bundle of attributes are encompassed in the little blue pork chop logo we use here at the Pork Board. 

The third challenge we need to be on top of is the secure pork supply plan. With the increase in production we anticipate over the next 36 months, we predict exports will need to go from 25% to as high as 33%. We produce a fantastic product that people around the world know is safe, dependable and available at an affordable price, and we’re efficient producers. We’re working on our secure pork supply plan with USDA and state veterinarians to make sure that when a problem occurs, we’re able to get on top of it quickly. 

Organization: The Des Moines-based National Pork Board has an annual budget of $62 million and oversees research, promotion and education for U.S. pork producers. It has 80 employees. Forty cents from every $100 of pork sold or imported funds the organization. 

Background: William J. (Bill) Even has led the board since June 2016. He is a fourth-generation diversified crop and livestock farmer from Humboldt, S.D. He grew up on a farm homesteaded in 1883 by his great-grandfather. The farm is run in partnership with his brother Tim and Bill’s son Anthony. He and his wife, Janell, have three children, Sarah, Anthony and Jill.

Education: Associate’s degree in agricultural production, Lake Area Technical Institute; Bachelor of Science in ag business, South Dakota State University; Juris Doctor, Drake University Law School.

Experience: He previously served as global industry relations lead and commercial unit lead, DuPont Pioneer; as South Dakota agriculture secretary; and as director of economic development and policy adviser for former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds.

One book leaders must read: “Monday Morning Leadership” by David Cottrell

Favorite leadership quote: “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” 

Which leader do you most admire, and why?
Coming from South Dakota, I focus a lot on the presidents carved on Mt. Rushmore. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were all farmers. In particular, I appreciate Roosevelt. As a young man, he came out to the Dakotas to be a cattle rancher. He built the Panama Canal, so he understood the need for strategic infrastructure investments. He developed the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet, so he understood the need to “speak softly but carry a big stick” in international affairs. He stood up for the common man by breaking up trusts and monopolies, and he created the National Park Service, so he understood the value of conservation. 

What is the best leadership advice you’ve received during your career?
I started working for South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds in 2005 and spent a lot of time with him. He did what good leaders are supposed to do: provide common-sense balance. Whether you’re a governor, an agriculture secretary or CEO of the Pork Board, you’re constantly dealing with competing interests. Your role is to listen; ask good, hard questions; get to the facts; and then figure out how to balance those competing interests for the benefit of and obligations to your constituency. 

Balance implies you don’t get out into the extremes. We see a lot of extremist positions in public discourse today, which brings to mind the old joke: What’s the difference between a statesman and a politician? The politician is worried about the next election. The statesman is worried about the next generation.

We in agriculture have the advantage of thinking in much longer time cycles and of thinking about the next generation. We think in terms of a year to produce a crop, or the time it takes to farrow a sow or raise a calf. The American public could use more of that long-term thinking rather than reactionary thinking.

All the while, you need your own core principles and things you believe in. The world, the circumstances and the issues will always change, but as long as you have the base of who you are and understand the difference between right and wrong, you’ll be OK.

Describe your leadership philosophy. 
Leadership implies followership, which goes back to the importance of balance. A leader takes people to a place they wouldn’t normally go on their own. You’re not a leader if you just run out in front of the parade and walk in front of it as it’s marching down the street. That is what demagogues do. Leadership is thinking about the future, creating a vision and encouraging people to throw in with you and to go someplace they wouldn’t normally go on their own. 

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