PORK Perspectives: A Minute with Topigs Norsvin’s John Eggert

( Topigs Norsvin )

PORK Perspectives is a recurring column that provides business and leadership strategy tips from some of the pork industry’s leaders, sharing insights on their business plans and service to the industry. 

John Eggert hates being good. For Topigs Norsvin’s chief development officer in the U.S., good simply isn’t enough. He believes in putting in the extra effort to be great and leads his team accordingly.

Eggert leads sales, marketing and research and development efforts in the U.S for Topigs Norsvin, a farmer-owned pig genetics company owned by 3,000 Dutch and Norwegian pig farmers. In a recent interview, Eggert shared his business philosophy, his thoughts on the changing swine industry and his first time meeting the board of directors.

Q. Tell me about your business.
Our company is very focused on the long-term in regards to what is best for the customer, for the product and for the next generation of pig farmers. All of our company profits get reinvested back into our R&D program. Our owners are all about getting paid with better products to use on their farms. Philosophically, that makes Topigs Norsvin different. We aren’t about hitting quarterly numbers for Wall Street. They have a strong belief in what a pig should be and what it should be doing on the farm.

Q. Describe a typical day on the job for you.
A. My favorite part of my job is that there is no typical day. Every day is different. I may be in the office one day, at a farm the next day, a packing plant the following day, and then on the other side of the world the day after that. I enjoy getting to see the global industry and appreciate that opportunity. I hope I have something valuable to share when I travel to visit with producers and packers around the world. I know they teach me something everywhere I go.

Q. How does Topigs Norsvin help and work with its customers? 
A. For us, customer service begins at the slat level. We’re on the farm with our customers, helping them learn how to manage our products and get the most out of them. Every customer is unique – some have hundreds of thousands of sows and some have 20 sows. We don’t say no to anyone. Each customer requires a different level of service. A new customer may get more attention up front because they are learning and getting educated. Larger customers may get more attention at times because there are more aspects to their business and more components to discuss. Ultimately, we make it a priority to be here for everyone when they need us.

Q. How has the business changed since you started with the company?
A. I’ve been with Topigs since 2010. During that time, we’ve grown from having a very small presence in the U.S. to being a very significant player in the U.S. Our genes are in over 10% of U.S. sows today – and that number is growing as fast as we can make more. Our strength lies in our product.

Q. What is your business philosophy?
For me, it’s about product leadership and providing solutions at the slat level. But quite honestly, I work for a business led by farmers at heart. I will never forget meeting the board of supervisors that oversees our company for the first time. I was so nervous – I wanted to have all the numbers I needed in my head from a business standpoint. But to my surprise, they just wanted to talk about pigs. We “do” breeding in a different way; we are solving challenges for farmers. 

Q. Describe the most eye-opening moment in your career.
I traveled to The Netherlands after I was hired. I’ll never forget asking a farmer if he was attending farrowings 24/7 to get the performance he was achieving at his farm. He thought I was crazy – he pointed at a sow and said “that’s her job!” I learned quickly that it’s about creating a female who can do the job herself. Fast forward nearly 10 years. Our industry is struggling to finding quality labor and workers with strong animal husbandry skills. Genetics that require less human intervention and labor are critical now. 

Q. What does balanced breeding mean to you?
If you select only for total born, you’ll get a lot of pigs. But by focusing only on total born, you’ll also get a lot of small pigs, including some pigs that aren’t viable. Our owners said they wanted more pigs, too, but not more pigs in the bucket. For every additional pig born we add through genetics, we ensure that number of pigs weaned increases at the same rate. As we increase total born, we increase number weaned and number of teats as well – our goal is to achieve a balance of traits so that we get large litters or high-quality piglets from a female who can do the job herself.  A self-sufficient animal makes life on the farm easier.

Q. How is the field of swine genetics evolving? 
When I was in school, we were excited about all the changes we were witnessing in the world of genetics – from genetic markers to cloning. When I started my Ph.D., they said that mammals had 100,000 genes. When I graduated four years later, they said mammals had 25,000 genes. We were still discovering some very basic things 20 years ago. Then we shifted to where we had all of this genetic information, but what should we do with it? We had some phenotypes, but we needed to collect more data on the animal. Genetic information isn’t any good if you can’t tie it to a trait from a genetic improvement standpoint. We are starting to circle back to emphasizing genotypes again, while new methods to collect large volumes of phenotypic data are also under development. Genes can have multiple functions and multiple interactions with other genes. The science of genetics is exploding all over again right now and that’s fun to be around. 

Q. How has the U.S. swine industry changed?
In the last 10 years, we’ve seen expansion, further integration, heavier hogs to market, and increased interest in antibiotic-free and animal welfare-focused production. I expect all of these trends to continue. We continue to develop a better pork product that can be sold around the world at a competitive price. But if you look at the trend for per capita pork consumption in the U.S., it’s been very flat. Because the US is such a great place to raise pork, our industry continues to expand.  However, expansion without increased domestic consumption means further dependence on export markets.

Q. As a global company, how does African swine fever affect your business?
Disease is bad for everyone. Our U.S. customers are positioned for profitability provided we keep ASF out. ASF in China dominates the headlines, but we also have grave concerns about how ASF is moving in Europe. Heightened biosecurity is at the forefront for all genetic companies and producers. Topigs Norsvin continues to build global and local redundancies for our products. For example, we now have TN Tempo and Z-line nucleus herds in Canada in conjunction with our new Delta Canada boar test station. These redundancies provide an insurance policy for both our company and our customers.

John Eggert

Q. What concerns do you have about the swine industry now?
In addition to getting export markets opened up and keeping ASF out of the country, there’s more and more pressure being placed on all livestock producers in terms of sustainability and their impact on the environment. The world wants livestock production to be more sustainable. I’m proud to be part of a company that actually contributes to that – we’re not just talking the talk, but we’re also walking the walk. 

Q. What’s the best piece of business advice you could give to someone just getting started?
Don’t surround yourself with people that think the same way you do – how boring is that? Surround yourself with people that think differently. The world is not black and white. Sometimes there’s no solution, sometimes there’s two. Sometimes you’re both right, sometimes you’re both wrong. Identify the people in your world of high moral character that also possess the qualities of intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom and then always listen to what they have to say, even if you disagree, and don’t be afraid to ask for their advice.

Q. How do you stay current and up-to-date on the industry? 
The amount of information available today is overwhelming. I scan the headlines, and drill down on (maybe) one story each day. If it’s good, I share it. The team of people that I work with have diverse interests, and they do the same. We feed each other. Today’s technology provides many avenues for staying in communication with people all over the world (and I use them every day), but no technology is as effective as a personal conversation.

Q. If you knew then what you know now about your career, what would you have done differently?
Don’t look back, look forward.  My career path has been an imperfect and winding road, but I learned from all the errors along the way. They shaped me. If I say “what if …?”, I’m thinking about possibilities in the future, not wondering about the past.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Nothing brings me more satisfaction than getting positive feedback from a customer – how much they appreciate our product and how well it works for them. 

Q. What will the Topigs Norsvin business look like 20 years from now?
I don’t see any big fundamental changes in “what” Topigs Norsvin does, or in “why” we do it, but I think the next 20 years will bring a lot of changes in “how” we deliver genetic improvement. Twenty years from now I anticipate large volumes of commercial production data from individual pigs and carcasses that can be incorporated into our breeding program in conjunction with enhanced genotypic data. The challenge will be to have the computing power to process all the data. The result will be increased rates of genetic progress and an ability for us to more rapidly respond to the ever-changing demands of pork producers and consumers. Big Data is changing agriculture. A lot can change in 20 years, and it will.

I hope people are eating more pork in 20 years. I love that we are educating consumers with new and better methods for preparing pork so that they have a more rewarding eating experience. I love foodies and their desire to know where their food comes from. I think it’s fantastic because pork has a good story to tell. Topigs Norsvin will contribute to that with our breeding philosophy. We are part of the story. 

Opinions expressed in this column are the opinions of John Eggert and do not represent the opinions of Farm Journal's PORK. Watch for future columns featuring advice and insights from more of the industry's largest suppliers.

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

Pork Producers: Are You Prepared for an Emergency?

African Swine Fever Facts You Need to Know