Jim Cheney – Hill Meat Co.
Jim Cheney had just graduated high school in 1968 and when his father advised him to look for a job at Wenatchee Pack, he thought he was going to work at one of the fruit packing sheds in town.
And why not? His hometown of Wenatchee, Washington, is considered the “Apple Capital of the World,” and Cheney had already worked previous summers at a local cherry packing shed. In fact, he was looking for different work only because the cherry harvest was late that year.
But Wenatchee Pack had nothing to do with fruit. Cheney arrived at a stockyard filled with cattle and pigs and was put to work on the slaughterhouse floor. The owner expected him to last three days, but instead Cheney has been bringing home the bacon for almost 55 years.
As the majority owner and CEO of Hill Meat Co. of Pendleton, Oregon, for more than 30 years, Cheney is long removed from the slaughterhouse. In fact, the company neither raises nor slaughters pigs anymore. But its hams, bacon and sausages are sold in 20 states in the western U.S. as well as commissaries at U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan.
Cheney’s daughters, Kimberly Sorensen, Cary Frostad and Nicole Sorensen (Kimberly and Nicole married brothers), have also moved into leadership roles in the company and their father is working on a succession plan as he edges toward retiring.
“I’m a simple man, I have basically started from humble beginnings and learned business mechanics from trial and error, not college education,” Cheney says. “I tried to do the best I can and been successful.”
Pork is the future
Cheney initially bought into Hill Meat Co., which markets its products as Hill’s Premium Meats, in 1992 and bought out his partner about eight years later. When he became an owner, the company produced beef and pork products while harvesting and processing cattle and pigs.
By that time, Cheney had spent 13 years at Wenatchee Pack. The three days he was expected to last had turned into him becoming general manager and part owner. Though he did spend a couple of years working in residential construction, he was also the general manager of a meat packing company in Bellingham, Washington, before buying Hill Meat.
Hill Meat had fallen on hard times when Cheney bought into the company, and he subsequently made a business decision that eliminated three-quarters of its sales when the company ended beef sales and harvesting livestock on site.
“I took a look at the facility and our competition. We had a smokehouse and sausage kitchen, so pork was the course forward,” Cheney recalls.
It’s been such a successful course that the company ran into supply problems. Hill Meat needs the equivalent of 4,000 hogs per day and there aren’t farmers in the Pacific Northwest to meet demand for pork belly, legs and loins.
So, Cheney hit the road to meet farmers in Iowa and Minnesota. He’d learned enough about the industry to know the genetics, feed practices and housing conditions he wanted for quality assurance in the meats. He worked with one processor in Iowa to start a facility and train employees, and Hill Meat audits its suppliers to ensure they comply with sanitation and hygiene standards he’s set.
“We procure our raw materials at a standard we can be proud of for our customers,” Cheney says. “One of the most important things for quality is stress-free environment. We can say our bacon, hams and sausages are all produced with Hill Meat program guidelines and standards.”
From farm to market
Cheney envisioned Hill Meat’s future would be concentrating on pork products, but he says technological innovations have enabled the company to widen its supply chain and make those products more efficiently in a time-sensitive operation.
Pork suppliers ship cuts such as loins, ribs and butts in vacuum-sealed packages that preserve the freshness for months under the right conditions. Some even process and package some pork loins and back ribs Hill Meat provides customers, including high-end restaurants. Pork bellies for bacon, legs for hams and shoulders for sausage are shipped by the ton in containers.
And while Cheney’s daughters had no illusions about where they were going to work as their father did at Wenatchee Pack, he says they and their husbands have tech savvy he doesn’t. So, Hill Meat now has automated accounting and inventory control systems and the smokehouse and packaging areas are computerized, too.
“My children have brought Hill Meat Co. to a level I could not have done,” Cheney says. “We are as advanced as any company out there.”
Hill Meat also delivers products with company-owned trucks, though Cheney changed the method—instead of servicing individual retail accounts, most products are shipped to distribution centers throughout the West. It’s more efficient and the company has a dispatcher who helps ensure the trucks return with other loads opposed to empty trailers.
The company has expanded its facilities to about 120,000 square feet and Cheney says the company is planning to add another 20,000 square feet for smoking and cooking its products.
“Every customer we have expects to grow. If they don’t, they won’t have a job,” he says.
Hard work with lots of help
Cheney says Hill Meat’s growth has also made it a desired workplace in Pendleton. It currently employs about 130 people, there’s never been any layoffs and the employment service he works with has a waiting list of candidates to fill open positions that arise.
His career hasn’t always been smooth, though. At Hill Meat and the company he part-owned before that, Cheney has weathered conflicts with partners while learning how to operate businesses through practical experience. He’s learned how to understand income statements, cost columns, vendor agreements and business regulations by necessity.
Now a grandfather who’s enjoying seeing his children and grandchildren become part of the business, Cheney isn’t retiring yet, but he is making a succession plan and he reflects on how he turned a mistaken impression about a job into a 55-year career.
“To run a business you have to be a problem solver,” Cheney says. “But I owe a lot to the people who work here and my family—they’re instrumental to our success. I love coming here. I love watching the place grow.”
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