PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Mark Bienhoff

( Kemin )

PORK Perspectives is a recurring column that provides business and leadership strategy tips from some of the pork industry’s finest. Meet Mark Bienhoff, Pathogen Control Team Leader at Kemin.

His phone rang at 6 a.m. with his first question of the day from a customer about application equipment. Call number two came in from a customer with questions about a product. The third call was from a customer at a large cooperative ready to set up a new system. For Mark Bienhoff, DVM, no day is typical in his role as the leader of Kemin’s Pathogen Control Team. And that’s why he enjoys it so much.

From talking to swine producers and poultry farmers, to renderers and researchers -- all in one day – Bienhoff’s been coined a “jack of all trades” at Kemin and is constantly seeking ways to meet the needs of a changing industry.

“Some people go to school to get an education,” he says. “I went to school to get an education to get me started. But my real education comes from learning from this industry every day. I’m constantly digging in and listening; I learn a lot from my customers. It keeps me challenged to constantly move forward in this business.”

Bienhoff shares his views on leadership strategy and the future of the pork industry with Farm Journal’s PORK.

Q. What is your “why” – what motivates you every day?
I’m passionate about animals and being able to raise them in a safe, productive environment with good animal welfare practices.

Q. How did you get your start in the pork industry?
I grew up in western Kansas on a diversified farm with milk cows, pigs, layers and stock cows. My family – four boys – had a built-in workforce. My brothers loved agronomy and engineering, and I was on the animal side. I went to Kansas State University and then returned to work as a veterinarian in my home county where I was a mixed-animal practitioner for seven years. After sustaining an injury with a horse, I was unable to practice with my fingers and arm injury. I decided to go into industrial medicine and began working for Ralston Purina as a tech vet and have been in an industry role ever since.

Q. Tell me about your business.
Kemin is a global ingredient company that has four main platforms: gut health, nutrition, feed quality and pathogen control. I lead the Pathogen Control Team for North America. If pigs aren’t exposed to pathogens, they are much less likely to get sick. One of our goals is to lessen the opportunity for pathogens to get to the animal. My team looks at all the ways a pig can be exposed and how we can prevent that from happening. 

Q. What is your business philosophy?
It’s very simple. I try to treat people like I want to be treated. I like a good argument, and I don’t think disagreeing is a bad thing. I like respect mixed in with that, too. If I know you and disagree with something you are saying, I will tell you. I want you to be able to come back and tell me I’m off base on something, too. That’s my philosophy – frankness and honesty.

Q. How has the business changed since you’ve been with the company?
Everyone is busier. Ten years ago, people had more time to meet with you. But everyone I talk to does one-and-a-half jobs today. We really like the cell phone, the internet and all these means of communication, but it’s made us busier, and people have to make decisions quicker and have less time to gather information. That means you have to be succinct in your messaging. People we are trying to reach are so busy and when we finally get that time with them, we have to make it count. 

Q. How does your company help and work with its customers? 
Expertise. In this era of instant access to endless blogs, opinions, etc., you’ve got to have good data, be sincere and earn respect through the work you do. We have to be experts. You cannot be smart in everything, but you need to be able to collaborate and connect with those who are smarter than you. I always say that we must earn the respect of our customers to be worthy of sales to them. That’s how we operate at Kemin.

Q. What concerns do you have about the swine industry?
I am concerned that something will slip in on us, like porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) did. I don’t want us to get complacent. When it comes to disease, it’s not acceptable to say we will deal with it when it gets here. Bugs are very smart. They don’t quit. We can’t either. We must be ready.

Q. What are the greatest opportunities in the swine industry today? 
We have big challenges that ongoing consolidation and increased size can intensify.  We have diseases we need to eradicate and we lose too many pigs from birth to market.  Those are our challenges, but also some of the opportunities in front of us. I am bullish on the pig industry. I can’t believe the strides we’ve made. When it comes to feeding the world, I think pigs are part of that. I believe if there’s anywhere in the world that can find a way to control or eliminate a disease like African swine fever (ASF), it’s the U.S. We have dedicated researchers here – in fact, the rest of world calls on us to initiate and share our research. As long as we maintain that edge, I think we have the leadership and expertise in the swine industry to meet tomorrow’s challenges – in whatever form they come in. 

Q. What advice do you have for someone who might like to do what you do someday? 
Figure out your passion. Be assertive and find someone with that job. Go tell them you want to work with them. I came to Kemin wanting to sell them a product and they ended up turning the tables. They said, “I think you should help us sell what we’ve got here.” Remember that you can’t do it all yourself. Find good people and work with someone you admire and can learn from.

Q. Who inspires you? 
I’m inspired at least multiple times a week. I can have a conversation with Dr. Scott Dee, and I’m inspired. I can listen to Dr. Joe Connors and be mentored. I think you have the greats in your life, but if you want to grow, you have to continue to look for those greats. Do you watch “that” person? Mentorship should be looked for every day. Be open to younger people mentoring and inspiring you, too. It’s not about age or wisdom; it’s about new thoughts, vision and looking at something differently.

Q. If you could go back and do something differently in your career, what would it be and why?
My career was not planned. You’ve got to take the bad times, redirect yourself, get back on the horse and believe in what you are doing. Sometimes a kick in the rear is the best thing that will ever happen to you. I’m a product of the bad times and good times. It will rain – but it’s what you do in the rain that makes the difference. 

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Frank Brummer

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Martin Enderink

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Annamaria Marangoni