Early in the 20th century, a modest farmer named Charles Monfort pulled up stakes in Illinois and moved his family to Greeley, Colo. Starting small, raising mixed crops and a few chickens, the family operation grew to become one of the largest and most influential cattle and meat companies in the country. Much of Monfort, Inc.’s success derived from the intellect, ambition and personality of this year’s Hall of Fame inductee Kenneth W. “Kenny” Monfort.
Foundation of an empire
Kenny’s father, Warren Monfort, began the process of building the family’s small farm into a beef empire. Warren took over the farm when his father Charles died in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Warren shifted the operation from crop farming to cattle feeding, starting small and gradually building capacity and incorporating the latest methods and technology.
As the business grew, Warren gained a reputation for fairness and generosity to his employees and business associates. He worked hard and expected the same from others but treated everyone respectfully and rewarded their efforts. Walt Barnhart, author of the biography Kenny’s Shoes: A walk through the life of the remarkable Kenneth W. Monfort, says these qualities likely made a strong impression on Kenny who, among all his other qualities, is perhaps remembered most for his kindness and humility.
As young boys, Kenny and his older brother began helping out on the family farm. Along with feeding, milking and other farm chores, Kenny became involved in the business side, helping his mother Edith maintain feedlot records at an early age. That experience probably laid a foundation for his legendary business skills that brought such success to the family company in years to come.
Kenny’s brother Richard “Dick” Monfort, seven years his senior, initially was destined, and groomed, to inherit leadership of the family business. But in 1944, Lieutenant Dick Monfort, serving in the U.S. Army Air Force, was killed when the B-17 bomber he navigated was shot down over Germany. The tragic loss profoundly affected the Monfort family and younger brother Kenny, but also put him on the fast track toward running the business.
During the late 1950s, Kenny began encouraging his father to get into the meatpacking business. He saw what the family was losing in shipping, shrinkage and yardage costs as they transported finished cattle to terminal markets in the Midwest, and he wanted a slaughter facility closer to home. The Monforts entered a partnership with Capitol Pack to build a plant, and in 1960, Greeley-Capitol Pack began operations just a mile from the family’s feedlots. Soon after, the family bought out the other investors and the packing enterprise became Monfort Packing Company.
Kenny, Barnhart says, was a pioneer in recognizing the opportunity presented by a more integrated beef production system. He realized that full pasture-to-plate integration was not realistic for the beef industry, but he foresaw that linking feeding and meatpacking could build efficiencies into the system and spread financial risk while potentially improving product quality for consumers.
Under Kenny’s leadership, the packing plant expanded and incorporated innovations such as fabricating beef cuts on the premises for shipping in boxes rather than shipping carcasses. The company quickly became one of Greeley’s largest and highest-paying employers.
The initial Monfort feedyard grew to become one of the largest in the country and one of the most innovative. The company, for example, was one of the first to install equipment to steam-flake corn — an expensive investment but one that increased cattle rate of gain by 10 percent.
Largely against his father’s wishes, Kenny became heavily involved in state politics, running successfully for the Colorado House of Representatives in 1964. Even as an anti-war Democrat with a passion for civil rights representing a largely Republican district, he was elected to a second term in 1966. After a failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1968, he returned to the family business full time. Kenny did not run for elected office again but remained involved in politics, speaking out against the war in Vietnam and in support of civil rights. While some of his views put him at odds with his contemporaries in the livestock business, he also was an outspoken capitalist and supported pro-business Republicans, including former U.S. Senator Hank Brown, a friend and long-time employee.
The Monfort company went public in 1970, with members of the family retaining majority ownership. By that time, the operation included a feedyard with a one-time capacity of 115,000 cattle and a second feedyard under construction. The packing plant was slaughtering 350,000 cattle and 60,000 lambs each year with revenue exceeding $150 million. The company employed more than 1,200 people in the Greeley area. A year later, Warren Monfort retired at 78 and Kenny became CEO, taking control of a company with $218 million in sales and an annual pay-roll of $20 million.
The business saw its ups and downs through the 1970s and 1980s, facing industry consolidation, market volatility and labor disputes, but continued to expand in both cattle feeding and meatpacking. The Monfort family sold its interest in the feedyards and packing company to ConAgra in 1987, and the operations are now under the ownership of JBS/SA and its subsidiary, Five Rivers Cattle Feeding.
The Monfort name, however, remains prominent in Colorado agriculture and business circles, and thanks to the family’s philanthropy, extends throughout Colorado communities. Visit the Greeley area and you will find Monfort Elementary School, Monfort Park, Monfort College of Business at the University of Northern Colorado, Monfort Children’s Clinic, Monfort Concert Hall and more. At Colorado State University in nearby Fort Collins, the Monfort Endowed Chair in Meat Science provides a sustainable source of funding for research and teaching. Kenny Monfort donated the endowment funds in 1989.
Now out of the livestock and meat business, Kenny’s sons Charlie and Dick Monfort are principal owners of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies.
Barnhart says that as he interviewed dozens of Kenny’s friends, family members and business associates, the theme that consistently stood out was his unique personality. He just wasn’t like other people. He was a multi-millionaire who routinely drove his car on empty and bummed cigarettes from employees. A Fortune 500 CEO who identified with and related to feedyard cowboys and meat cutters as well as to business leaders or politicians. A Democrat who campaigned for civil rights and against the Vietnam War but who adamantly supported free enterprise and disliked government regulations.
Kenny’s style of dress was notoriously casual. He avoided ties whenever possible and often wore mismatched, outdated clothing. The title of Barnhart’s book,Kenny’s Shoes, comes from a story about Kenny attending a formal political fund-raising event in Denver. When someone pointed out he was wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe, he just laughed it off, saying he was sure he had another pair just like them at home.
His disarming manner and personal style might have led some business contacts to underestimate him initially, but they soon recognized his intelligence, insight and authority. He was in charge and he knew what he was doing.
Above all though, people remember him as a kind man. Barnhart, who worked for the Monfort company early in his career, says, “In the six years I worked for the Monfort organization Kenny never talked down to me. He always greeted me warmly by name and treated me with respect. That’s the way I saw him treat everybody.”
Kenny Monfort passed away in February 2001 at the age of 72. More than 1,200 people attended the memorial service in Greeley.
Much of the information in this article is drawn from the book Kenny’s Shoes: A walk through the life of the remarkable Kenneth W. Monfort, by Walt Barnhart, a Colorado-based writer and communications consultant. Barnhart has worked extensively in the meat and livestock industry and contributed to numerous agricultural publications including Drovers.
Kenny’s Shoes is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or directly from Barnhart’s Web site, www.carnivore com.