PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Steve Weiss

( NutriQuest )

It’s not hard to figure out who NutriQuest president Steve Weiss emulates. When you walk into his office, the first thing you’ll notice is a large portrait of his father on his wall – the man who first taught him the value of servitude.

“My late father was a huge source of inspiration for me. He had a fourth-grade education and provided for 10 children. He really sacrificed to provide for us, far more than he was ever given,” Weiss says. “He made sure that we all had a Catholic education and taught us mostly by his example of hard work, sacrifice, service, and giving of his time and resources back to the community.”

That approach to life carries over into NutriQuest, the company Weiss co-founded in 2007 with Chad Hagen, which is focused on technology development, sales and consulting. 

“Servitude is a key core value for us. If we focus every day on improving the producer’s life in our innovation and service and everything that we do, the rest will take care of itself,” Weiss says.

He shares his views on mentoring, leadership, strategy and what he’s learned during his career.

Q. How did you find yourself in the swine industry?
After I received my BA in accounting from Iowa State University, I was a partner in a firm where I met Jeff Hansen. He became a client of mine and I helped him put together the original business plan for Iowa Select Farms as an outside adviser. I later became the chief financial officer (CFO) for Iowa Select Farms. It was fundamental for me to be on the ground floor with Jeff starting and growing Iowa Select Farms. 

Q. Tell me about your business. 
NutriQuest is a technology development company that operates under a three-legged stool, consisting of technology development, sales and consulting. We strive to be the best in the world at applied science. We have four dedicated research facilities to carry out our research and development (R&D) efforts. Our products are technical, so they require a capable sales team, who are driven to understand the unique needs of each producer and deliver products and services that best meet those needs. And the third leg, which is unusual for companies in our space, is consulting. Not only do we do nutrition consulting, but we also have the NutriQuest Business Solutions Group that performs like a surrogate CFO, consulting for producers of all sizes. This three-legged stool approach allows us a closeness to the customer that we think is differentiating, and ultimately, drives our technology development. 

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?
I consider myself a player-coach who tries to lead quietly and mostly by example. My days can be hectic since every day involves many facets of our business. My best days are when I interact with customers, trying to help our customers succeed.

Q. How does your company help and work with its customers? 
We serve them through our consultative approach. We really concentrate on delivering technologies that improve productivity and deliver a high return on investment through improved productivity or meet a critical need, whether that’s humane euthanasia, water treatment or improving meat quality. 

Q. What is your business philosophy?
Relentlessly improving the prosperity of your customer should drive everything you do. For us, our brand promise is “Ingenuity Inspired by Servitude.” 

Q. How has the business changed since you’ve been with the company?
It's really been a long-term focus on constant reinvestment in people and R&D resources. We take technologies from conception to market, a process that can easily take three to five years. Nearly 13 years after we founded NutriQuest, we’ve been able to develop a broad product portfolio that we are proud of especially because we feel we have done some meaningful things to improve our industry. I see us continuing to think long-term and continue to invest in technology development.

Q. What concerns do you have about the swine industry?
Today we have too much supply. Our industry is mostly modernized so it's going to be more difficult than ever to contract. I've encouraged producers to carefully analyze their operation and look at opportunities to partially downsize to remain competitive. I think the supply situation is the biggest concern right now. And maybe along those lines, I am genuinely concerned about the viability of the independent producer, given the way that the pork revenue dollar is currently being divided. It's clear that our market-based pricing mechanisms for hogs aren't working. Some think this will lead to more consolidation, but I don't believe that needs to be the case. Pork production is complicated, it's really difficult. Most packers that I talk to who own hogs don't want to own more of them. I'm really hopeful that packers and producers will forge stronger alliances that are based more on win-win and not win-lose. 

Q. What keeps you up at night?
I'm very concerned about activist attacks on the pork industry. Our industry consists of the best people on the planet. But we also subscribe to the philosophy of working hard and keeping our heads down, while being good stewards and producing safe, affordable protein for the planet. Animal rights activists are attacking us from every angle. Our lack of response is appropriate – we don't stoop to their level to give them credibility. But I fear that consumers only hear one side of the issue, and that side is anti-meat. I've become a strong advocate for efforts to expose the true agenda of activist groups like HSUS and to educate consumers that plant-based meat or “fake meat” is less healthy than the real thing.

Q. What are the greatest opportunities in the swine industry today? 
Coming from a public accounting background, I’ve had the opportunity to work in several industries. There's not one that I've ever had near the passion for like I do for the swine industry. I'm very optimistic about it and see three areas of opportunity. I think one of our greatest opportunities is simple – we need to tell our story. A story of our stewardship, of the animals we raise, of how we care for the environment, and the importance of our communities. Another opportunity is forging win-win alignments between the producer and processor sector. I think we could create some amazing synergies between those that are best at raising pigs and the best at processing and marketing meat. I’m also optimistic about exports. Exports are now upwards of 30% of our production. A lot of people are saying with COVID and China, we need to decrease our exports. That may be the case, but I am certain we need to take a different approach to exports. We need to identify the best and most reliable export markets and take a customer-driven approach to serve the unique needs in those markets versus more of a throughput-driven approach where we produce lots of meat that needs to find a home. 

Q. How is COVID-19 shifting our industry? 
The significant shift from food service to eating at home won’t change quickly so our overall focus on the retail space, online markets and home delivery markets will be even more important. Secondly, in every business downturn I’ve participated in, we’ve always come out better and stronger. You dig deeper, innovate better and learn a lot of things about yourself. Our industry will do that as well. I think there will be much more innovation in processing and production, especially in the labor space with what's happened here. The pork industry will need to be especially astute because the broiler industry has some advantages from a labor perspective: a smaller, more uniform animal and less labor-intensive production. 

Keep reading to see what Weiss regrets and how he believes ASF will shape the future of the pork industry.  

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PORK Perspectives is a recurring column that provides business and leadership strategy tips from some of the pork industry’s finest. Opinions expressed in this column are the opinions of Steve Weiss and do not represent the opinions of Farm Journal's PORK. Watch for future columns featuring advice and insights from more of the pork industry's leaders.