Started Small & Just Got Lucky – Part 3Started Small & Just Got Lucky – Part 3
In part three of BEEF magazine’s serialization of “Started Small & Just Got Lucky,” consulting nutritionist Kenneth Eng’s 50-year retrospective on his career and the beef industry, he recounts the business of the 1960s.
July 1, 2014
Leaving A&M for the corporate world
Though I loved the Texas A&M University people and my job, my association with the business community in the Houston area convinced me I wanted to go into industry. In 1965, it became obvious a small group of independent nutrition consultants, mainly on the West Coast, were having a huge impact on the emerging commercial feedlot business. Ralston-Purina offered me a job as feedlot consultant for the western part of the U.S.
At that time, Ralston-Purina had only one other company consultant and his focus was poultry. I didn’t want to go to St. Louis, but they told me I could relocate to either their regional office in Denver or Sacramento, so I went to Denver first, then moved on to Sacramento. I stayed three years and learned a lot about the business aspects of a large corporation.
At that time, Ralston-Purina was the dominant feed company in the world, and it was anxious to “tap” the consulting business. However, I found that representing a feedlot client and a commercial employer simultaneously and fairly was a difficult challenge. It was also obvious when I went back to St. Louis once a month that there was a lot of internal corporate competition for a piece of the consulting action. Nonetheless, it was a company full of smart, dedicated people, and a young person like me couldn’t help but learn a lot.
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Dean Hodge left the Kern County Cattle Company and took a job as head of beef research in St. Louis about the same time as I came onboard at Purina. About two years later, they added several other consultants whom they based out of St. Louis—and they were a pretty illustrious group. Most of them later moved into the independent consulting business and included people like Jack Martin, Mel Karr, Les Kuhlman, and others.
In 1968, the company asked me to relocate to St. Louis and to take on a job as liaison between the sales and marketing group, the computer group, the research and consulting group. I thought that would be an impossible task; besides that, I had vowed never to live in cold country again, so St. Louis was off limits to me.
As I was leaving, Bill Lane, who was director of Purina’s sales group, said he could see I chose to become a big fish in a little pond rather than a big fish in a big pond like I could have been if I stayed with them. He was smart, super-aggressive and he may have been right, but I doubt it.
Early independent consulting & consultants
In the summer of 1968, I decided to hang out my “independent consultant” shingle when Bart Cardon of Tucson, AZ, contacted me. He had small commercial feed company and research and consulting group in Tucson called the Early Fat Feed Company. He was an incredibly impressive individual—large with a great voice and he could give a hell of a speech.
He was in the process of merging or buying a larger feed company in Arizona called Arizona Milling, but he wanted to stay in consulting. He suggested we pool our talents. That sounded okay with me and I moved to Casa Grande, AZ, where I stayed off and on for the next 15 years. My consulting business grew rapidly, and at the end of the first year, it was both busy and profitable.
However, Bart and I had different visions of the consulting group. I wanted the consulting to be separate from his company, but Arizona Feeds could own a portion of it. Bart wanted the consulting business to be part of Arizona Feeds and, in turn, I’d get partial ownership in that company.
Early on, I suspected that Arizona Feeds was going to encounter problems—which it did. I told him, “Bart, why would I want part of your company when it’s unprofitable, and my consulting business is profitable.” He said, “I guess you wouldn’t,” and we had an amicable parting. I promised I wouldn’t pursue Arizona accounts, but the rest of the consulting world was mine if I could handle it.
Again, I learned some new things about business when I was associated with Bart. One was, don’t fall in love with your own voice and ego if you want to develop a successful and profitable company. As I mentioned previously, Bart had a great speaking voice and presence and was perhaps the best speaker I have ever met. However, he would travel all over the world and sometimes not even charge expenses just to be on a program.
I learned early on that if you think you are a good speaker and have something worth saying, charge for the effort. If they are unwilling to pay, your information must not be very valuable. Arizona Feeds eventually went broke, and I believe Cargill owns it. Bart later became Dean of Agriculture for the University of Arizona. It was a job he was well suited for and where he ended his career on a high note.
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Don't start a book in the middle! If you haven't read the first & second part of Ken Eng's historical account of his 50-year career in the cattle industry, catch up now!
Bart and I remained friends over the years. As smart and impressive as he was, it was obvious that managing a successful corporation based on a personality cult was difficult. That’s a good lesson for all of us, but as Mac Davis says, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble.”
Beginning in 1969, I was totally on my own and without partners. Over the years, I’ve had several individuals ask if I would consider taking on a partner and lots of them were very talented, such as Dale Furr. However, I didn’t think it would be fair to them or me. If we had a client or a project that was fascinating enough to take on, I figured I’d probably want to meddle in it.
Over the years, I worked closely with several consultants but it’s been on a pay-as-you-go, and not a partnership basis. I suspect this limited my growth, but I never thought bigger was better. One way or the other, I had more work than a rational person could handle and I suspect that at one time during the 1970s I represented more clients with more cattle than any individual in the country.
There was lots of work available, not much competition and I was still young, ambitious and had the curse of a curious mind. I’m not necessarily bragging about this because there was a personal cost involved. During that time, I didn’t mean to be unkind, but I occasionally neglected family and friends and others who were important in my personal life. Some might say that was ego, but it really wasn’t. I just wanted to see what was around the next corner or over the next mountain. Again, the curse of a curious mind.
Independent feedlot consulting
The independent feedlot consulting business started on the West Coast around 1960 and it must have been a good business model because it survived and thrived for 50 years. When I joined the ranks in 1968, there were approximately seven active and successful independent consultants. They included Jack Algeo, Gene Erwin, Jim Nofsiger, J. D. Autry, Jim Elam and Ross Cooley.
Cooley lived in Amarillo, Erwin in Arizona, and the rest were Californians. Bill Roberts (hired by Erwin) and I were the last to join the original group. Each of us was different, although we also had many similarities. Many had airplanes and research facilities, and because there was abundant business available, we stayed out of each other’s hair. Jim Elam and I are the only ones of the original group still alive.
Many practices now taken for granted were pioneered by this small group and our clients. This would include high concentrate rations, the addition of feed fat, higher levels of total ration protein, non-protein nitrogen, etc. We also pioneered many byproducts such as citrus pulp, almond hulls, potato waste, etc.
You’d be surprised at the number of “experts” at that time – including several university people – who believed steam flaking did not pay, 10% protein was the max required in a finish diet, feed fat was not a suitable ingredient, and you needed at least a 12%-15% minimum finish ration roughage level. In the early ’70s, a marketing group that had done a survey told me that approximately two-thirds of the cattle fed in the U.S. used programs formulated by this small group of nutritionists. Today, I suspect only 30%-40% of the feedlot cattle are served by truly independent consultants.
In the 1970s, a number of new consultants joined the industry, including Wally Koers, Jack Martin, Mel Karr, Dale Furr and Steve Armbruster. Their entry was followed by several individuals who are still active, including Abe Turgeon, Bill Dicke and his group, Dave McClellan, Jim Simpson, and Mark Miller. Hollis Klett took over Gordon Reiner’s Extra Factors business and has since added nutritionists, including Keith Hansen, Nathan Elam, Bob Beville, Gary Holcomb, Scott Schake, etc. Their business model is a little different but it must work.
In addition, most commercial companies now have company consultants who work with their customers rather than salesmen. This was a business model pioneered by Ralston-Purina in the mid ’60s. Currently, Midwest PMS is a successful feed company with a number of consultants.
Graduate student groups often ask me what does it take and how can I get started in the consulting business? It’s a complicated question but among the requirements is a curious mind, a flexible mind, a high-energy level, and the ability to make quick decisions based on what you believe is the best for your clients.
I’m also often asked to compare today’s consultants with the original group. This is also difficult because there have been so many changes in the industry and society in general. When I started my career, there was less competition between consultants and more friendship and camaraderie than you find today. Also, early consultants were more likely to think outside the box, making quick changes if they were in the best interest of their clients, even if they weren’t particularly popular.
I now hear more conversations and concerns about such things as losing clients, legal liabilities, and reluctance of clients to make changes than I heard in the past. Some of this may be due to the changes in the makeup of clients and in the industry in general. One of the great advantages I had is that I never worked for someone I didn’t like. I tell my small group of employees that their biggest fringe benefit is we only do business with good people that we truly enjoy. Life is too short to drink cheap wine or associate with negative people.
A 50-year friend
Dale Furr, a successful consultant from Hereford, TX, was a very close personal and business friend for almost 50 years. We met in 1960 at Oklahoma State University where we were both working on a Ph.D. Dale retired from consulting approximately 10 years ago and died three years ago. In between, we worked and played together, and perhaps more important, had numerous 12- to 24-hour gin and domino games.
Dale was extremely successful consulting mainly in the Texas Panhandle area. He had a number of great clients. Most people thought of him as a very conservative and quiet person, but there was definitely another side. He was an intense gambler. Our gin and domino games resulted in approximately a half million dollars of wins and losses between the two of us over 40 years. In the end, we came out about equal, but he was an intense gambler whether it was between the two of us or he was in Las Vegas. When he got out of town, he also had a wild side. Bob Beville, who worked with him, and I always said that when Dale uttered the phrase “look out, south Dallas” you knew it was time to run for cover.
Although we were close friends, we were also very different. Caroline called us the odd couple. I was Oscar, and Dale was Felix. Dale was a complex and fastidious person. Many would be surprised to learn he was also stubborn and filled with self-doubt. He always worried about what other people thought even though he was very successful. He would often tell me that he wished he had my attitude and was as successful. I would reply, “Dale, you’re really successful and quit sweating the small stuff.”
In spite of our differences, we had great times together, including fishing and gambling. On one of our nutrition trips to Bodega Bay north of San Francisco, there was a large group including Jim Mickus from Cargill who loved to play gin even though he wasn’t very good at it. Dale and I would argue over who got to play him, but our plans ended badly because the ocean was really rough. Almost everyone, and especially Jim Mickus, got really sick.
The morning we were to start fishing it was rough so everyone went to the restaurant for a big breakfast, which was a mistake. On the way back to the boat a seagull flew over and crapped on Mickus’s head. My friend, Billie, was with me and in her broken English said, “It is very bad luck when a bird shits your head.” She went back to the cabin rather than go fishing.
To make matters worse, Keith Hanson caught the only fish, and I believe he got sick immediately thereafter. But it could have been worse, because the following week the same boat capsized and one person drowned.
Billie and Dale were good friends and she always worried about Dale because of his diet and also because he didn’t have windows in his office. After Dale had a couple of bypass operations, he became fanatical about his cholesterol levels and got them extremely low. I tried to convince him this wasn’t good for him mentally, and Billie always said if he didn’t get more sunlight, he would lose his mind.
I don’t know if it’s related but, unfortunately, Dale did extend his life after his heart attacks only to suffer from Alzheimer’s the last four or five years of his life. One good thing he did following his bypass operation was to quit smoking after being a long-time chain smoker. I told him that his heart attacks and swearing off smoking added at least 20 years to my life because of the secondhand smoke I experienced during our gambling sessions. Bottom line, I miss him and regret that his final years ended as they did, even though his wife Jan took good care of him.
Next week: “A Return to A&M” and “1970s Consulting – Texas Style”
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