Robert “Bob” Rebholtz started from scratch and built Agri Beef, one of the country’s premier beef companies. And along the way, he inspired the people around him, transformed the beef business in the Pacific Northwest and influenced the U.S. beef industry.
Rebholtz always wanted to be a cowboy, says Rick Stott, Agri Beef’s executive vice president. So after completing his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of California-Davis, he enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford University. He was, to understate the fact, one of the few Stanford MBA candidates planning a career in ranching.
He had plenty of other opportunities but was interested in feeding people and knew there always would be a demand for food. So following Stanford, Rebholtz took a position managing a large ranch in Nevada in 1962. In 1968, he saw an opportunity to purchase the Snake River Cattle Feeders near Pocatello, Idaho, which had gone bankrupt. He secured financing for a lease-purchase arrangement and eventually took full ownership of the feedyard.
Once in the feeding business, Rebholtz realized that for feedyards in the Northwest to succeed, the region needed a packing plant. Working with other area cattle feeders, he helped set up a partnership with IBP (now Tyson) to open the region’s first beef-packing facility.
Along the way, Agri Beef purchased El Oro Cattle Feeders in Washington in 1975 and Supreme Feeders in Kansas in 1995, and established Boise Valley Feeders in 1998, bringing the company’s current feeding capacity to 170,000 head.
Rebholtz was always innovative and willing to take chances on new opportunities, says Scott Lindsay, president of the company’s livestock division. Agri Beef founded a trucking division and launched MWI Veterinary Supply, as a way to cut costs. Agri Beef eventually sold MWI, which now is publicly traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Rebholtz also initiated a nutrition division including a manufacturing facility for liquid feed supplements, which became PerforMix Nutrition Systems.
Rebholtz established a board of directors, unusual for a private company, recruiting leader s from retail, banking and other business sectors to help guide the company’s strategic direction.
Part of Rebholtz’s vision was for Agri Beef to become an integrated company involved in all phases of beef production, and in 2003, five years after he passed away, the company purchased the Washington Beef packing plant in Toppenish and entered the packing business.
A vision for innovation
Early on, Rebholtz recognized the potential for using emerging technology in the cattle-feeding business. Around 1985, the company installed the first IBM mainframe computer in Idaho, and worked with a software developer to create an electronic system for maintaining and analyzing feedyard records. That openness to technology carries over today, and Stott says Agri Beef uses data systems comparable to those at Fortune 500 companies.
Stott says whenever Rebholtz traveled, he would return with new ideas, sometimes to the consternation of his staff. In the late 1980s, he visited Japan and saw the production system for that country’s famous Kobe beef. He believed his company could produce a similar product in the United States for far lower production costs and export it to Asia. He returned home and began raising Wagyu cattle in 1988, which evolved into a premium branded-beef program, Snake River Farms. With that step, Rebholtz transformed Agri Beef from a cattle-feeding company to a food company, a revolutionary concept for the time.
Integrity, passion and compassion
Rebholtz’s coworkers especially recall his concern for others and his commitment to his company’s employees. He took a personal interest in every staff member and wanted them to learn and advance in the company. He wanted to provide people with the opportunity to make mistakes, grow and improve, says Agri Beef’s president and CEO Robert Rebholtz Jr. He also liked to keep things fun, with frequent celebrations to recognize people’s success or important milestones.
Because he showed so much trust and confidence in his staff, he “made you hard on yourself,” Lindsay says. He very rarely needed to challenge or discipline anyone, because everyone wanted to do his best. That culture continues throughout the company today, he adds. “In my time with him, he made it like it was my company and didn’t second-guess my decisions. He was a joy to work with.”
Stott remembers a time when the company’s management team was discussing changing employee benefits from an expensive profit-sharing plan to a more conventional plan in which the employer matches worker contributions. After listening to the debate, Rebholtz stepped in and said no, the company would stick with the profit-sharing policy. He wanted his long-term employees, “especially the cowboys riding a horse every day,” to have savings for retirement without taking any money out of their pocket, even if it cost the company more.
“Our approach to the business is to continue following his legacy,” Rebholtz Jr. says. The first thing he cites in describing that legacy is integrity. He recalls an incident from about 25 years ago, which he says helped influence his own standards. Rebholtz and the Agri Beef team were negotiating a major business transaction with another company, and Rebholtz soon recognized the other party was basing its offers on some faulty numbers. The errors would have worked to Agri Beef’s advantage, but Rebholtz politely explained the problem to the other party and gave the company a chance to renegotiate the deal after correcting the figures. His actions built substantial good will, and the two companies entered a productive, long-term partnership. “He always was looking for a win-win,” Rebholtz Jr. says.
Lindsay describes Rebholtz as a quiet man who led by example, but when he spoke, people listened. He rarely became angry, but if he did, it likely was over treatment of his employees rather than profit and loss statements.
Stott recalls an instance when he fell behind as the holidays approached and had not secured approval for his team’s annual bonuses. He approached Rebholtz at the last minute for approvals, pushing the deadline for the company to pay the bonuses before the holidays. It was, Stott says, the only time in his years of employment he saw Rebholtz become visibly angry, asking him “Don’t you care enough about the people who work hard for you to make sure they get their bonuses in time to buy Christmas presents for their kids?” The culture of integrity and opportunity Rebholtz instilled helped attract some of the company’s current leadership team.
Stott, for example, grew up on a Montana ranch but was working for an international software company, with Agri Beef as one of his clients. Among all he companies with which he worked, he recognized Agri Beef as one of the best at identifying and responding to problems and adapting to change. That exposure led to him taking a position with the company in 1994.
Lindsay began doing business with Agri Beef as an independent Iowa cattle trader in the 1970s, buying cattle to ship west for feeding. After moving to California and becoming more familiar with Agri Beef, he took a position with the company as a buyer and took over cattle procurement in 1990.
Committed to industry And community
Rebholtz stressed industry involvement, a tradition that continues within Agri Beef. He was one of a handful of leaders who championed the Beef Checkoff from its inception. He served as director of the National Livestock and Meat Board, board member and executive committee member at the American National Cattlemen’s Association (now NCBA), chairman of the Beef Industry Council and vice president of the Beef Promotion and Research Board’s operating committee.
Closer to home, Stott describes the Rebholtz family as “quiet givers,” who have supported numerous charitable causes in their community and region, particularly food banks and the “Beef Counts” program which has provided over a quarter-million meals in Idaho and Washington.
Today Agri beef operates divisions covering ranching, fed cattle, food processing, food sales and marketing, nutrition and environmental solutions, mirroring Rebholtz’s vision of touching every phase of the beef industry. The company is thriving today, Stott says, because of the foundation Rebholtz built.
Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame
The Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame was launched in 2009 to celebrate the rich traditions of the cattle-feeding industry and recognize individuals who have devoted their careers to preserving its mission and improving production practices. Earlier this year a committee nominated a handful of deserving individuals.
Other 2012 Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame Members:
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