Maggie O’Quinn is the real thing – a life-long ‘ag’ brat.  Bet you thought I was going to say something about her Irish ancestry, didn’t you?  She’s a farm girl, born and raised.  She left the land for college and returned to the auld sod shortly after she married. As a kid, she broke in her boots by participating in cattle shows and livestock judging teams, places where she learned the ropes and how to step lively but very carefully.  She’s a Georgia girl, graduating from the University of Georgia with a major in ag communications.

With her Bulldog sheepskin in hand and while the ink on it was still fresh, she jumped on a plane bound for Guatemala and spent six months ‘studying abroad’ as part of a brand new UGA international ag program.  Time spent in that Latin American country; located just south of Mexico and bordered by Belize, the Caribbean, Honduras and El Salvador, would be good training for her first-and-only, real life, post-grad working gig.

O’Quinn joined Certified Angus Beef shortly after graduation. They handed her a passport, a fistful of airline tickets and told her to get out of the country.  She became a confirmed member of international jet set, pounding the global pavement to promote U.S. beef.  She has passport stamps from 40 countries to attest to her frequent flyer status.  Her work has helped create more business internationally and introduced American beef into new markets.  She was recently named to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) Executive Committee.

Today, she stays relatively close to home – the Western Hemisphere.  Her CAB accounts are Latin American and Caribbean nations.  She spends as much time as she can back home in Alabama.  So let’s spend five minutes with Maggie.

Q. As an executive account manager whose territory is Latin America and the Caribbean, how does your job differ from those managing domestic accounts? Do you have to market and promote beef differently outside the U.S.?

A. My job is very focused on true grass-roots market development. Barbados is a beautiful example. I first went there in 1999. We launched that year and it was an easy launch into very upscale hotels, resorts and restaurants; that was our only market at that time.  In 1999, there was no fresh U.S. beef in the market, period. Retail was so underdeveloped. Beef in Mr. and Mrs. Barbados Consumer’s mind was just stew meat. It didn’t matter if was a tenderloin or a chuck roll, it was cubed up and frozen.

I thought, “We’ll never launch our brand in Barbados at retail.” But fast-forward to 2006 and we launched CAB in a two-tier approach with USDA Select at the same time. Instead of just waltzing in and doing a traditional retail sale, we helped open the market for other fresh U.S. beef.

So a lot of our consumer education at retail is different than it is in the States. We’re teaching people the value of the word “fresh,” whereas here, nobody is going to buy frozen unless they’re getting some fun Holten burgers for tailgating or something. That’s one example of how it’s very different. You’re helping truly change these markets as they evolve and grow.

Q. About USMEF - why would an organization like yours, one that doesn’t even own product, want to participate?

I attended my very first USMEF meeting almost a month to the day after I started with CAB. I was on the plane to that bi-annual board meeting in November of ’97 without a clue about this whole world of exports. It’s been a fun journey in the last 14 years now. CAB has been a member since 1989.

USMEF is the trade association representing all sectors from gate to plate in the red meat industry. They’re covering not only beef, but pork, lamb and veal. It’s their mission to drive demand for all four species in every corner of the globe.

We do pay a membership feed. For every $1 we’ve put in over the years, we probably get at minimum $5 back. USMEF operates in a number of arenas. One of the biggest ones is helping us eliminate barriers to trade. So, actively trying to help negotiate with governments to bring these duties down, helping to open new markets when they’re closed.

Then there are all their marketing programs. They are on the ground at every single level in a market. For example in Mexico, because it’s an older, more mature market; they’re aggressively marketing with a consumer-level campaign that’s focused on the high-quality attributes.

But in an emerging market, like Columbia, where we don’t have a lot of U.S. beef sales going on, their marketing USMEF is not going to be at the consumer level. Instead, they’re going in and establishing relationships with key importers in preparation for the free trade agreement to go through. 

Q. What do you do on the USMEF Executive Committee?

A. It’s our goal to be the ambassadors, the champions of exports in the industry and we’re there to provide strategic direction and oversee all the membership. We’re representing our constituents and we’re all coming at it from very different points of view. The way Tyson comes at it versus the way the Nebraska Beef Council versus IMI Global—we all look at it very differently. We make sure every sector is represented in a positive way.  It’s like you’re the shareholder. You’re looking at the financials, making sure everything is legit. You’re also making sure, “Are we maximizing value? Are we getting the ROI for all the dollars we’re investing in these markets?”

Q. From an international perspective, what should farmers and ranchers do to help strengthen our market share?

A. We have to constantly ask ourselves, “What is it that we’re exporting? What is it that we want to be known for globally?”

Today, our unique selling point against Brazil, India or China (and they’re all coming on strong, producing beef) is, loud and clear, we’re about quality. It’s so important that we stay focused on quality in everything we do and it’s so important that we tell our story to the international customer. Why do we feed grain? Why does our product taste better in a sensory evaluation with all the world’s leading meat scientists?

We’ve got to constantly work to stay ahead of these other countries because they’re nimble, they’re competitive and they want what we already have: market share. I think we’ll stay ahead of them if we stay focused on quality.

Q. What do you do when you’re not buzzing around the Caribbean or selling exporters on American beef?

A. Because I spend so much of my time and energy on the road, my husband and I bought our little dream country estate—a little farm of 50 acres in Randolph County Alabama.  The community is Omaha—population 60 or 70. My job is crazy so when I’m home I love to be outside as much as possible. I do a lot of gardening. We’re constantly rearranging our dreams for the farm.

We want to be in the pork business soon. My husband keeps honey bees so I’m responsible for our honey marketing, which really just involves giving it away to family and friends or selling it through our local farmers market. I spend a lot of time working out either doing yoga or Zumba class just to get my head mentally back in the game after a long trip. When I’m not on the road I’m a total homebody by design.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.