COVER STORY – Fun on a bun

Posted on Dec 7, 2012 :: Cover Story
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photograph by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios

There was a time, not long ago, when few people outside of the Midwest knew what a bratwurst was. Sure, there were sausages. There were wieners and franks and hot dogs – but brats? They were an ethnic food, found mostly in places like Wisconsin. In the mid-1980s, Johnsonville Sausage, then a $25 million company, sent Bill Morgan to the Southeastern United States with a mission: Build the market for brats. In his mid-20s, Morgan was responsible for moving brats onto store shelves at Winn Dixie and Publix throughout Florida and the Southeast.

“I would literally go into a hotel room with an electric frying pan, plug it in and cook the brats the morning of my sales appointments,” Morgan recalls. “I would put them in tinfoil so they stayed nice and hot, and I would go to the appointment in my suit and tie, walk in and talk about all the wonderful things about our product.” He was often met by skeptics.

“They would say, ‘What is this? A ba-rat? You’re from Jonesville – Johnsonville?’ I would put a cutting board out on their desk, cut them up, put a pretzel stick in it and say, ‘Just taste it.’”

One taste often led to a sale. Arrangements were made to offer samples in stores, and when shoppers tasted them, they tossed them in their carts. “Once we got them in every grocery chain, we would advertise,” Morgan says. “And that’s how we did it all across the country.”

A Wisconsin native, Morgan served in many different roles nationwide for Johnsonville since then, ultimately landing back in Sheboygan Falls and becoming president in 2007.

For a company that started in 1945 with a family recipe from Austria, Johnsonville Sausage has grown to $800 million in net annual sales, with production sites in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kansas, another in France and exports to 30 countries. Beyond brats, Italian sausage and breakfast sausage, the product line has grown to appeal to international tastes, health-conscious eaters and those looking for something unique – like bratwurst patties for hamburger buns.

Since 2000, the family-owned company has doubled its workforce to 1,400 employees, referred to as “members,” about a mile from the tiny hamlet of Johnsonville, where Ralph F. and Alice Stayer opened the little butcher shop that started the company (a sausage plant still operates there). About six years ago Johnsonville moved its headquarters from Kohler to the site of its two Sheboygan Falls plants.

Last year, the company won the National Association of State Workforce Agencies National Employer of the Year, which recognizes an employer that demonstrates outstanding accomplishments resulting in a positive impact on its workforce, industry and community.

Today, Johnsonville enjoys the No.1 market share for fresh sausage nationwide, a category it helped pioneer, says Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board, based in Arizona. The company’s sales increased 10.7 percent year over year from 2003-2007, and even in the face of the economic recession since then, the company has seen annual sales increases of 8 percent.

“The company keeps growing and expanding – it’s consistently profitable,” says Fleming, who worked at Johnsonville until 2003. He credits Ralph C. Stayer, son of the founders and who now serves as chief executive officer and chairman of the board, with building the company from its humble beginnings to the global company it is today. The CEO’s flamboyant way of showing his appreciation is loud – and legendary (more on that later).

“He has taken the company international, from a cornfield in Wisconsin, that little mom-and-pop sausage shop that started in 1945, to a company that is selling product around the world. That takes vision and determination – that’s Ralph,” says Fleming.

Indeed, his parents never dreamed the company would grow as big or broad as it has, says Ralph C. Stayer, who at 69 spends more than half the year in Florida. He laughs as he says in a telephone interview that he is “not retired, still engaged, but more productive” while Morgan handles the business. (“I wouldn’t be in Florida if he wasn’t great,” Stayer says of Morgan. “He’s a great leader and a very fair man. He listens to everybody – he lives the Johnsonville Way.”)

But Stayer is glad that his father, who died at age 93 four years ago, and his mother, who is 95 and lives in Florida, during their lifetimes witnessed the success of the company they built.

“It’s gratifying – I’m so thrilled they lived long enough to see what grew from a little kernel, like the story of the mustard seed in the Bible,” says the Johnsonville chairman and CEO. “They had a little butcher shop and they never really got out of Johnsonville. I go to Tokyo and China and see our product in stores … and it amazes me.”

How they came to the Johnsonville Way

Ralph C. always worked in the family business, through summers in high school, while a student at Notre Dame College and after graduating in 1965. Long about 1982, when Johnsonville employed about 125 people, he realized they were stuck in a rut. The company was growing, but turnover was high. Quality suffered.

“I made all the decisions,” he recalls. “My whole focus was on how I had to change our people.”

He called in an expert on company leadership from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside to work with him and two others, Russ Wiverstad, then vice president of operations, and Bob Salzwedel, then chief financial officer. The professor told Stayer he was the problem.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to change YOU. Don’t worry about them, because if you act different, they’ll be different.’ We did a lot of blue-sky thinking. It took months and months and a lot of effort. But we persevered and it turned out great.”

What came out of that exercise was the Johnsonville Way, an approach to the way everyone does everything at the company: Learn, stretch and grow. Morgan says it’s how the company runs today.

“Our philosophy – and how we work here – is together we create an environment where every one of our members is required to develop their God-given talents,” Morgan explains. “The key word is required, it’s an expectation.”

Leah Glaub, vice president and director of Johnsonville’s Member Services Team (human resources), oversees the company’s organizational development and runs training programs. She sees her mission to “light the path to success,” and that involves everything related to helping members learn and challenge themselves, including English as a second language, 24/7 access to computers in the company’s “member development center,” tuition assistance and matching employees with “buddies” across the company.

“A big part of the Johnsonville Way is setting goals,” Glaub says. “We’re looking for people who like to challenge themselves.”

Morgan says the company encourages its members to develop a “Five Star” experience, or plan for challenging themselves. They must be “90 percent confident” they can reach their goals in a given period.

“If you are 100 percent confident and it’s a slam dunk, my reply is, ‘Great, so you’re not planning on learning anything this year? If you’ve got it all figured out Jan.1, what are you going to learn?’ You’ve got to figure that last 10 percent along the way.”

In the last five years, Morgan has scheduled quarterly “town hall” meetings at every Johnsonville facility, when he talks to members about the company’s financial health, strategies and goals. With every new initiative, he says, “People want to know what their role is.” They’re expected to challenge anything that does not appear to align with the company’s objectives and goals.

Consistent quality – and bang-up ideas

Morgan says the company’s commitment to communication and clear direction with its members has helped it weather not only the economic recession but the pressure of prices in what is essentially a commodity product, pork. In 2008, pork prices doubled as the price of corn increased.

“We’re looking at some of the highest input costs for pork products in general,” says Fleming, and the 2012 drought contributed to price increases. At the same time, “economy and value have become a bigger touchpoint with consumers.”

To keep customers loyal, Johnsonville has become aggressive in its marketing. It has helped promote the idea that bratwurst, for example, “is part of the rotation of what’s for dinner,” says Bruce Johnson, senior brand manager at Johnsonville. It has partnered with grocery chains for in-store cooking demonstrations, featuring meals using Johnsonville products that can feed a family of four for under $10. Its website is big on recipes, party ideas and contests.

Johnsonville has helped promote the idea that brats are often central to fun, casual occasions – everything from summer picnics and tailgate parties to family reunions. Served in stadiums nationwide, Johnsonville brats are the official brats of the Green Bay Packers, served at “La-la-la-la-Lambeau!” (as the stadium commercial goes). And though it hasn’t run for years, the TV spot featuring, “Charlie Murphy’s cooking Johnsonville brats!” is as memorable to some as “Where’s the beef?”

The company’s goal is to consistently offer high-quality, great-tasting products their customers can count on, to keep them coming back, says Johnson.

“Our brand really embodies the values of the company, its family and community,” he says. “We joke that you know who your real friends are, because that’s who you serve brats to. It’s about being casual, fun and really genuine.”

If you really want to know how the sausage is made, the secret ingredient with Johnsonville products is, well, fun.

“We laugh a lot,” says Morgan. “We don’t take things too seriously.” And when Ralph is in the office, you can’t escape his exuberance.

“Anytime something good happens – it could be something great in the factory, it could be someone landed a new account, a new product launch, whatever – Ralph’s got a history of blowing off firecrackers in his garbage can. All of a sudden you’ll hear a ‘BOOM!’ and he’ll say, ‘Hey, guess what happened? So and so did this great deal!’ or whatever. Everybody laughs. It’s just funny. It happens all the time.”

The chairman of the board admits the shenanigans: “I’ve gone through a lot of waste baskets,” he says.

World’s largest grills go to disaster sites

Johnsonville is still 100 percent family owned. Several family members work for the company, including Michael Stayer-Suprick, oldest son of Ralph C. and now vice president in charge of the company’s international group. Stayer-Suprick works for Morgan, whom he calls “a wonderful coach and mentor.”

“Growing up in the business, you never quite understand what a gem you have until you are old enough to realize it,” says Stayer-Suprick. “I grew up in the original factory, my brother and sister and I lived in the original house for a few years growing up. It was very interesting to live where we made product.” Eventually the family moved to Sheboygan, but the business was “a constant source” of conversation. “My father made sure we understood what the business was all about, how it functioned and why it functioned the way it did.”

The family influence permeates the company, and many who work at Johnsonville have fond memories of the founders.

“When I started, Ralph Stayer Senior trained me to hang ring baloney on a stick before they go into the smokehouse,” recalls Michael Zorn, shipping coordinator. “I probably wouldn’t have gone back for a higher degree if Johnsonville didn’t help me out,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”

Giving back is a big deal at Johnsonville. The company owns three semi-trucks, each with an entire side that opens to reveal “the world’s largest grill.” Called the Big Taste Grills, they drive to fund-raisers, such as the Madison-area’s “World’s Largest Brat Fest” every spring, they go to the Super Bowl each winter, and they’re deployed to sites where natural disasters have occurred. After Hurricane Katrina, they gave away 10,000 brats in New Orleans; in Joplin, Mo., after the 2011 tornado, 4,000 brats were handed out in two days.

After the photo shoot for this article, a huge pile of bratwurst in buns sat on a plate in the company kitchen. They were no longer hot, but the aroma lingered into the hall and through the offices of Johnsonville headquarters. As the clock ticked closer to noon, one by one, Johnsonville team members entered the café, eyeing the pile of brats and looking around for clues as to who they were for.

“Are these for the taking?” each person would ask, as if he or she was the first to notice the uneaten sausages on the platter.

And one by one, in a matter of a few minutes, the brats disappeared.


Johnsonville Sausage

Founded: In 1945 by Ralph F. and Alice Stayer in Johnsonville, Wis.

President: Bill Morgan

Chairman and CEO: Ralph C. Stayer

Ownership: Privately-owned by members of the Stayer family

Employees: 1,400

Headquarters: Sheboygan Falls

Locations: Two plants in Sheboygan Falls, one in Johnsonville and one in Watertown, Wis.; one in Illinois, one in Kansas and one in France

Exports: 30 countries

Sales: $800 million in net annual

Products: Bratwurst, Italian sausage, breakfast sausage, bratwurst patties, Better-for-You Sausage (chicken and chicken-pork blend sausages in a variety of flavors)



Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →