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This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut


02 Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon - Omaha Steaks

Image by jasonlam via Flickr

Nebraska doesn’t have mountains or oceanfront beaches.  What few iconic things it does have speak to the work ethic of its people.  Omaha Steaks is a national brand, like Mutual of Omaha insurance or Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett, that people know and trust.  It’s dependable, just like Nebraskans and the Nebraska family that founded the company and still run it today. This story, which originally appeared in the Jewish Press, is an appreciation for the history and growth of this food industry titan.

This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon engage in the back and forth banter of media talk-jocks, except theirs isn’t idle chat but the dialogue of two men at the top of a food service industry company giant whose annual sales fast approach a half-billion dollars. In an interview at the headquarters of their family-owned Omaha Steaks empire, 11030 “O” Street, they revealed themselves as wry sophisticates with a knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing.

After working together 20 years, their close familiarity finds each interrupting the other to complete a sentence or to make a point or to poke fun. They seem to enjoy the give and take. It’s all part of being the next generation, the fifth to be exact, to lead the corporate giant. Each apprenticed under his dad. Each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.

For 89 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.

Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.

“You know what we have? What we have here, we have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with. That’s what we have here,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”

As is their habit, Bruce turned to Todd, asking, “Don’t you think?” Whereupon Todd opined, “Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business.”

“Not in a Bush sort of way,” Bruce joked. A nonplused Todd continued, “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.”  “All that stuff,” Bruce interjected.

Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company, always looking over their sons’ shoulders to ensure the family jewel is well-preserved. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, died recently after years serving as senior VP and GM.

“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “Bought the meat,” Todd offered. “Yeah, bought the meat,” Bruce confirmed. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”

The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.

As the decades progressed Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad in support of its large dining car services as well as to more and more restaurants here and in other parts of the country. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply to the public via mail order ads that enabled households to receive packaged shipments of cut beef. In 1963 the company published its first mail order catalog, whose product offerings soon extended far beyond beef steaks. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s increasingly national and international reach.

By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.

The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987. The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. There are now 75 and counting in 19 states. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer  electronic marketing as far back as 1990. Omahasteaks.com became the banner web site for what is the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, alazing.com. promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.

Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections and displays that tell the history of the family business.

In a family of arts supporters, Todd’s an elected member of the Board of United States Artists and board president of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

If Bruce and Todd feel burdened carrying the legacy of a company that boasts two million-plus customers and employs some 2,000 folks, they don’t show it. Guiding their interaction in family and business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.

“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly. Do it right every time,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.”

“Right,” Todd said, “and I think it also extends to the environment we create. We could sit around and stress out about the fact we have 2,000 employees and their livelihoods in a lot of ways depend on the decisions we make. And I think we always have that in mind. I also think one of the things that makes it so we don’t stress out is that so many of those 2,000 people think the same we do and they take responsibility for what they need to take responsibility for. And because they do that the stress we carry is minimized.”

“But the whole thing is doing the right thing,” Bruce said. “I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block. Look, if spacemen came and took either one of us away there’s no question in my mind…this place would continue on because of the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”

The confidence they exude may be attributed in part to the up-through-the-family-ranks training the pair got and to the well-balanced team they form.

“It’s interesting,” Todd said, “because I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. You know, Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people.”

“And somebody has to manage him, too,” kidded Bruce, before turning serious again. “Yeah, I think that when you’re a leader sometimes you’ve got to fake it. My dad used to say to me, ‘When in command, command.’ And that’s what I think we do. I mean, our dads built a helluva business and, you know, you always want to top it. I mean, George W. (Bush) just had to get Saddam and we’ve just got to sale a steak to every Chinaman,” Bruce said, smiling.

Unfazed, Todd said, “I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. I would say I’m an optimist and Bruce isn’t as much an optimist…in the sense that when we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side of the picture. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”

The way Bruce puts it, “I think our management styles complement each other as well. He is really detail-oriented sometimes and I am really detail-oriented when he’s not. And about different things. There’s some stuff that Todd goes, ‘Well, so, get it shipped.’ And I just look at him and I go, ‘OK…well, just sell it.’ He looks at me and says, ‘OK.’” Whatever the situation, they make it work. “Yeah, we do,” Bruce said, “and we get along, which is great, too.”

With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.

“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”

“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all. We’re never very formal, either. Usually we’ll discuss things over lunch.”

Talking business within the family doesn’t follow a 9 to 5 schedule. “Business doesn’t stop and start at the office for us,” Todd said. “I mean, Bruce could be on vacation and just decide to call me about something that’s on his mind.” “Well, technically, what will happen,” Bruce said, “is when you’re away from the place and the day-to-day that’s when you really get some good ideas and then we’ll call each other. I remember before cell phone were prolific I was in Italy and Todd was in Japan and we had this fax dialogue going on.”

Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company, Bruce said.

Two affiliate companies sprung from this visioning — the A La Zing line of convenience meals and OS SalesCo., an incentive division. Fred Simon entered the publishing world with The Steak Lover’s Companion, a cookbook co-authored with Mark Kiffen. Simon adapted classic dishes from recipes developed by James Beard, an Omaha Steaks consultant for many years. More cookbooks followed. Simon’s developed Omaha Steaks-affiliated restaurants. Many more restaurants exclusively serve the Omaha Steaks brand on their menus. The company’s also approaching 100 of its own retail stores nationwide.

Trust in themselves and in the team they’ve assembled explains why the Simons are open to new marketing avenues and new technologies that enhance the ability of the company to serve customers. A toll-free customer service line. Online ordering. In-store purchases. New product lines. Seasonings, sides, desserts. Whatever passes muster with the Simons or in the Omaha Steaks test kitchens gets rolled out.

“While we have innovated a lot here and we’ve developed a lot of proprietary tools and analysis and internal stuff, I wouldn’t say we’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology,” Todd said. “Because I think what we want to do is to use technology that’s going to help us to help our customers. We were one of the first companies to put in an 800 number because it made sense to help our customers communicate with us. When we implemented a centralized computer system one of the first applications was order taking.”

“We’ve had to do these things. The Internet was just very logical — Sure, we should have that. And the fact the entire world put a PC in their living room helped,” Bruce said. “But it was easy for us because when you think about it we were just bypassing the guy on the phone.”

As “easy” as he makes it sound, Bruce added Omaha Steaks has taken great pains to enhance its order-processing systems via the Web and the phone. “I’ve seen a lot of them and I’m proud of ours — I think it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. Our development team has done such an outstanding job with those products.”

“I still think what it gets back to is that we say to ourselves, How do we solve a problem for our customers? Whether that problem is placing an order quickly and efficiently or being able to log onto the web site and access their gift list or whatever it is. And then asking, Can technology help us with that? As opposed to implementing technology in search of a problem” to solve,” Todd said.

Online sales account for an increasing chunk of the company’s profits and Omaha Steaks will accommodate the dot com craze as the demand dictates.

“Our philosophy is be wherever your customers want you to be,” Todd said. “A lot of people love to shop online. I’m one of those people. But we’ve got a lot of customers today that don’t. People still fax orders in. People still mail orders in. People like to come into our stores. So, whatever works.”

The retail segment has “grown as fast as we’ve been willing to add resources internally to support it,” Todd said. Plans call for 15 more stores this year alone. That may seem an odd way to go with cyber commerce on the rise, but he said even a cursory look around town reveals a boon in retail development. “So the economy is alive and well for a number of different sales channels to prosper.”

Success may make some tycoons complacent but not the Simons.

“I feel like with this business I can be an entrepreneur. There’s always new challenges, new products to be developed or whatever. That gives me a lot of satisfaction,” Todd said. “What gives me a charge is just seeing the business grow, being successful in business, messing around with our dads in the business. And just the sheer volume of product we go through — it’s just staggering sometimes,” said Bruce, who figures Omaha Steaks processes up to 250,000 pounds of just top sirloin each week and close to 50,000 pounds of tenderloin a week. That’s tens of millions of pounds of beef a year.

They’ve been at Omaha Steaks a combined 46 years now — Bruce since 1980 and
Todd since 1986 — and there’s no reason to think they won’t be there 46 more. But it was never a lock they’d be there in the first place. University of Pennsylvania grads, like their fathers, each weighed other paths before falling in line. Bruce came aboard first. Right out of college. But not before he looked at “a couple other opportunities.” Neither his first nor only option, Omaha Steaks was a sure thing. He worked there as a kid. “I wanted to do it. I liked the business. I understood the business. When I was at school I thought about the business.” What finally swayed him, was the offer of $1,000 signing bonus his dad put on the table.

When it was time for Todd to graduate a few years later he faced a similar dilemma. “My dad was encouraging me. I think he wanted to work with me. I was a little bit hesitant,” Todd said. Like Bruce, Todd too worked at Omaha Steaks as a kid. But he and some college friends had started a sound production company (they later sold). He had other career choices. He turned to his cousin for advice, asking, Is this a good thing? Bruce assured him it was. The pull of family won out. “I kind of at the end of the day felt like I owed it to my family,” Todd said. “This family has provided so much for me.”

Neither is sorry he made the leap into the family pond. “Yeah, it’s turned out OK,” Todd said in a classic understatement. Working with their fathers has meant learning from the best. Their dads, along with their late uncle Steve, were recently inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. Todd’s dad Fred is an inductee in the national Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. The company’s won awards and praise for its marketing and technology applications.

As for the cousins’ fathers retiring anytime soon, Bruce said, “We don’t say that word. They will never retire. They will never semi-retire. And the minute anyone would suggest such a ludicrous thing they would start coming into the office every day raising hell about every item on the balance sheet. They’ll never retire. They might go on vacation…” And that vacation may last for some time. But retire? No.

A sixth generation of Simons entering the business may be on the horizon. Todd
doesn’t have children and Bruce’s are still quite young. However, Bruce can see one of his daughters already thinking like a future mogul. On a visit to the zoo they waited in a long line at a concession stand, noting how the supervisor let the workers fall way behind, whereupon Bruce’s little girl said, “You know, Daddy, I don’t think that person is doing a very good job of managing that stand. That’s not a very good operation is it, Daddy?” He had to agree, his chest puffed with pride.

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