PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Stu Heller

( Neogen )

PORK Perspectives is a recurring column that provides business and leadership strategy tips from some of the pork industry’s finest. Meet Stu Heller, technical sales manager, animal safety for Neogen. 

Stu Heller has been promoting biosecurity before it was even a word. 

In the late 1980s, to say people weren’t fully bought into the concept of sanitation (or cleaning and disinfection) is an understatement. 

“We couldn’t just sell producers on our disinfecting products, we had to tell them why it was important and why they needed to do it,” says Heller, animal safety technical sales manager for Neogen.

Today, sanitation is just one of the many layers of biosecurity pork producers implement into their operations. As he looks back on his career, he says porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) was a turning point when people began paying more attention and “biosecurity” came into play. 

“The evolution went from basic sanitation to a much more intensive biosecurity outlook, making sure we were going to physically prevent infection from coming into our barns. But the problem is it's not an exact science,” he says. “You can't piecemeal biosecurity and just say I’m going to do No. 1 and No. 2 on this program, but I don't have time to do No. 3. Well, it just doesn't take much for a bad bug to get onto a farm and really wreak havoc with it.”

Heller shares his views on leadership strategy and what he’s learned in the past 30+ years of his career with Farm Journal’s PORK.

Q. Tell us about your path to the swine industry.
I went to Queens College in Flushing, N.Y. where I earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Then I went on to get my master’s degree at Georgia State University in administration and supervision. My original plan was to become a principal and maybe someday, a college professor. But I got sidetracked in the chemical industry in 1981 and have been involved with chemicals and poultry and pork producers since the late 1980s.

Q. What is your “why” – what motivates you every day?
. At Neogen, our why is to protect the health and safety of animal production and the food supply. We take the farm-to-fork concept seriously – we are involved with safety from raising the animals all the way to post-slaughter and packaging. We’re also involved in the business of making sure that food products are safe for the consumer.

Q. Describe a typical day on the job for you.
I provide technical advice on Neogen’s line of biosecurity products and programs. I am on the road half the month calling on or riding with our field representatives and visiting large vet clinics and producers. When I’m in the office, I’m on the phone doing what I’d do on the road – talking with potential or existing clients about any issues they might be having. I help clients with product selection and understanding biosecurity protocols and programs, and work in conjunction with larger clients to see what they could be doing better. We look at it as providing ongoing and continuous training for our products and programs for our people and our clients. 

Q. How does your company help and work with its customers? 
In addition to continual training of our products and programs, we also help our customers troubleshoot any issues. When problems pop up, such as TGE issues at a truck wash in Iowa or calibration issues at a truck wash in Illinois, I jump on a plane and go help them find a solution. At the end of the day, our team helps get them recalibrated and back online. Our field representatives and I are on the farm on a regular basis. I believe there is no substitute for that. With COVID-19, it’s been hard. We are doing the best we can while social distancing to maintain contact, so the customer knows we are there to support them.

Q. How has the business changed since you’ve been with the company?
When I started, the industry wasn’t as worried about trailer movement like we are now. The industry finally realized the center, the hub of everything in pork production, starts and ends at the truck wash. It’s the one place where every pig has contact. Every pig at some time in their life gets on that trailer. After Scott Dee’s work on PRRS transmission in the early 2000s, Bob Thompson and Butch Baker started researching the impact of “baking” trailers after cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Today, the levels of biosecurity are intense, but I think that’s why other countries around the world have experienced outbreaks like foot-and-mouth disease, and we haven’t had a case since 1929. 

Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Not everyone gets to say they really enjoy their jobs, but I really do enjoy mine. It’s the people – producers, vets, university professors, colleagues, competitors – those personal relationships and ability to help people in their livelihood. I consider it a privilege to provide information I believe can be helpful and that I know is important. I’ve been doing this a long time and most of my friends are people I’ve met in the industry. Even though I travel a lot, I am always running into friends and people I know. I rarely eat dinner alone.

Q. Who inspired you? 
My first exposure with the swine industry was with the DeKalb swine breeders in 1988. Dr. Harry Moberly, DeKalb’s director of veterinary services, took me under his wing and helped me understand what the industry was about. He helped me realize my job was not just business, but that it could be relational as well. 

He also shared this quote at one of the first meetings I attended with him that I still use today in my presentations: “It is the nature of man to find cure more compelling than prevention. The guy who solves the problem gets more glory than guy who prevents it. But in the science of biology, prevention is your best measure against disease.” 

Q. What is your business philosophy?
I want to help producers by providing them with solutions. Those solutions could be product solutions, program solutions or even recommendations. I have watched the highs and lows producers have gone through all these years, and I’m in awe of what these guys do. In the mid-90s when companies were crashing and farms were folding up, when it was all said and done and we came out on other side, I had this incredible respect for the American farmer and, in particular, the pork producer. One thing about the pork industry that is different from others is there is a tremendous amount of information sharing. No one finds out something that could be helpful and keeps it to themselves. 

Q. What will the business look like 20 years from now?
As research continues, we’ll find better and more effective ways to prevent disease, so we don’t have to treat it as much. The ultimate goal is to continue to find better ways to keep out disease. It’s a very research-oriented marketplace. The veterinarian is a bigger player in pork production than in any other species. We all know talking to producers at farms, you can tell them any story you want, but at the end of the day before you leave, he’ll say “that sounds great, let me check with my vet.” We’ve always been comfortable with that approach as we are selling products based on science. 

Q. If you could go back and do something differently in your career, what would it be and why?
I don’t know if I’d do anything differently. I think it’s worked out well for me and I feel blessed. It’s been a fun ride, and it’s been rewarding to meet really wonderful people in all sectors of the pork industry.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who might like to do what you do someday?
Remember this is a relational business. People like buying from people. You need to be ready to develop rapport from day one. Learn how to talk with someone, not at them. Sometimes the hardest thing we all must do is learn how to listen. Remember, it’s not always easy and you have to stick with it. Be straight with people, don’t cut corners, and don’t mince words. Pig farmers and veterinarians are straight shooters. If they ask a question, they just want a straight answer. 

Q. How do you think COVID-19 will change the U.S. pork industry? 
We learn from every disease. COVID-19 is probably the most horrible thing we’ve experienced in our lifetime from a social population standpoint. With COVID-19, it’s not the animals we have to be concerned about. The bigger problem in pork production is keeping our workers healthy. The industry is good at keeping out bugs, but if workers get sick from COVID-19, who drives the trucks, feeds the pigs, gives vaccinations? That’s why there’s been such an enormous rush on hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. From the pork production side, what can we keep doing to keep people healthy so they can provide the services crucial to us getting food to market? COVID-19 has reminded us we have to take care of people, too. 

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 Stu Heller 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.

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Dari Brown

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Mark Bienhoff

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Frank Brummer

PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Martin Enderink