Smithfield CEO: Sioux Falls plant is ‘one of the best’

Oct. 1, 2019

The CEO of Smithfield Foods said he can tell within five minutes of walking into one of the company’s 62 plants what kind of culture exists there.

When Ken Sullivan walks into the Sioux Falls plant, “everyone is saying hello to you,” he said. “They look you in the eye. You can just tell there’s a good workforce culture. I’ve always had an affinity for Sioux Falls.”

That approximately 3,600-person workforce is a key reason why Sullivan said Sioux Falls ranks among Smithfield’s best plants. Producing 1.4 billion pounds of fresh pork annually and 300 million pounds of processed products from bacon to ham, “it’s a production machine,” he said.

It’s also a 110-year-old plant he said isn’t going anywhere. In the past several years, Smithfield approved more than $100 million in improvements to the operation.

“We wouldn’t do that unless we have long-term aspirations and intentions here,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, plant manager Mark Wiggs and executive vice president Russ Dokken were in Sioux Falls on Tuesday to speak at the annual economic outlook seminar put on by the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“A huge reason, a big reason, the reason almost that we’ve chosen to continue to do business here and invest here … is the workforce,” Sullivan said.

“We have a tremendous workforce in Sioux Falls. We’ve really fostered an environment where people are engaged. When you have hourly employees, to get engagement is really difficult, and when you’re able to do that, the magic happens.”

That starts with continuity of leadership, he said. Wiggs has spent almost 30 years with the company, and previous leaders had similarly long histories.

“There’s a kind of longevity,” Sullivan said. “When you have a culture, that culture tends to get passed down, and that’s not true in places with higher turnover.”

These are not easy jobs, Smithfield’s leadership acknowledges. But with the help of robotics and automation, improvements have helped ease some of the very toughest roles.

“The very tough jobs we’ve tried to engineer out of the facility,” Wiggs said. “But it’s a continual training process. Everybody has a different capability, and we try to match the person to the job.”

Parts of a $45 million plant improvement project announced last December have been completed, and the remaining work is expected to be finished by the end of the year.

Improvements included production-line upgrades designed to increase the output of bacon for U.S. consumption and seasoned ground pork for export. Other renovations included the hog barn and receiving area, including modern features such as automatic climate-control systems.

“It was constructed in 1909, and certainly you would not have constructed a meat plant to look like it does today,” Sullivan said. “On the other hand, there’s something sort of appealing about the rich history and the degree to which that plant is part of the community and woven into the fabric of the community.”

While executives have talked about the advantages and challenges of continuing to remain in the facility just north of downtown, “leadership has concluded there are a lot more positive reasons to invest in Sioux Falls than reasons not,” he said.

While in Sioux Falls, the company made a $250,000 donation to Southeast Tech to support workforce development.

“We like to think we’re a company people like to work for because we do the right thing,” Sullivan said.

“We feel good about supporting workforce development. Long term, it’s important to our business. The people and training they are turning out are vocations that manufacturers need. And those skill sets are becoming scarce, so we want to do our part to support things like that.”

South Dakota’s Future Fund and donors are matching the donation for a total of $500,000 toward the school’s veterinary technician program.

Smithfield CEO: Sioux Falls plant is ‘one of the best’

We have a rare interview with the leader of Smithfield Foods, one of the city’s largest employers. Enjoy this inside look at what has been happening inside the 110-year-old operation.

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