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One’s a cowboy, another the son of a Mexican immigrant. One brings his dog to work every day.
We weren’t looking for People magazine fodder when we started researching this feature; we simply wanted three diverse companies that were rising stars in their niches. But in finding the companies, we also found the strong personalities that made those food processors what they are today. We found leaders, often founders, whose personal beliefs, ethics and even style are inextricably woven into the fabric of these companies.
Natural is a word that just as aptly describes Mel Coleman Jr. as his company, Coleman Natural Meats. Fred Ruiz is an Horatio Alger story; he and his Mexican immigrant father started Ruiz Foods by cooking up Mama’s recipes with kitchen appliances. And while he admits to being a little more hands-on than some are comfortable with, Gerald Shreiber plucked J&J Snack Foods out of bankruptcy court and has steered it through a series of acquisitions that leave it nicely poised to take advantage of healthy snacking trends.
These three companies are no small potatoes, either. Each has surpassed the $500 million mark in annual sales and arguably is the leader in a niche that each has done much to define.
Although the leaders of these companies have different backgrounds, they have the qualities that make America great — entrepreneurial, visionary, enthusiastic, willing to take risks and dedicated to making the best foods possible. We salute them.
Home on the range … naturally
Mel Coleman Jr., equally comfortable wearing a suit or jeans and a Stetson hat, tells us his family was ranching in Colorado a year before it became a state. “In 1875, my great-great-grandfather settled in Saguache and started Coleman Ranches,” he says proudly. The rest is “natural” history.
His father, Mel Coleman Sr., who advocated and practiced sustainable ranching and animal welfare, raised cattle without the use of antibiotics or added hormones. Mel Sr. never cottoned to the use of antibiotics or hormones because of his love for animals, and he was a conservationist visionary. He founded Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Meats, introducing the market to “natural” meats in 1979.
It took many years for consumers, retailers and regulators to catch up to his philosophy. Mel Sr. was the driving force in convincing the USDA to create the “natural” classifications for beef and, a decade later, to create the organic classification for meats and poultry. The company was the first USDA-certified natural beef producer.
BC Natural Foods (an alliance of Coleman Natural Meats, Petaluma Poultry, Gerhard’s Sausage, B3R, Penn Valley Farms and Pennfield Farms) merged in August 2006 with KDSB Holdings LLC, Gainesville, Ga., a producer and supplier of cooked and deli poultry, to create Coleman Natural Foods LLC, the leading U.S. processor, marketer and distributor of fresh and further prepared natural and organic animal proteins. Mel Coleman Jr. serves as chairman. With the merger, Coleman Natural Foods is one of the top natural meat processors in the country, with revenues in excess of $600 million a year.
“My family ran a commercial cattle ranch, raising livestock for the purpose of food,” says Coleman. “At the highest point including deeded and leased land, we ranched some 250,000 acres, running about 3,000 cows.”
During the mid- and late-1970s, the commodity cattle markets were not conducive to economic sustainability on the ranch. “One evening at dinner, my sister-in-law, a student at the University of Colorado, mentioned that many of her friends wanted to buy meat that came from livestock raised without antibiotics and growth hormones,” he recalls. “We never used hormones on the ranch. If an animal got sick, we treated it and segregated it from the herd. So the idea clicked in my dad’s mind. He decided he would no longer sell nine-month-old calves, but raise them to maturity (18 to 22 months) and get into the meat business to sell natural beef branded as Coleman.”
Since all the animals were raised naturally, Mel Sr. stamped the carcasses “natural,” which raised a red flag at the USDA. “An inspector said we couldn’t do that,” says Coleman. “He said natural meat has to have a definition, but he didn’t have one in his book. So dad drove to the regional office in Boulder, figuring he would get that taken care of in a couple of days. That was 1979. It took until 1981 for the USDA to establish a definition for natural, as it pertains to how livestock is raised.”
In 1982, the definition was changed by USDA to be pertinent only to the end product, not how the cattle are raised. The definition now reads: “During processing, nothing synthetic is ever added to the meat, including preservatives, and the product is only minimally processed.”
Mel Jr., who graduated from Western State College in Gunnison with a major in business and education, went to work in agricultural irrigation engineering and manufacturing because he feared the family ranch couldn’t support another person. “All that time, I felt guilty about not being on the ranch,” he says. “I came home in 1984, and when the meat processing business began, everything I had learned in the irrigation business dovetailed with what we were trying to do at Coleman.”
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