At Butterball Farms, It’s All About the Culture

Mark Peters was 30 years old when his dad passed away, leaving him in charge of a family business he admits he thought needed to be run differently than his father had been running it.

But in the transition period following the death of his father, armed with an accounting degree but no appreciable background in finance, Peters struggled with making the changes he thought were necessary.

“I was determined to change the culture of our business … I was really focused on culture,” said Peters, now the CEO of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based butter manufacturer. “What I wasn’t focused on was finance. While I was building culture, I was literally taking a business that had no debt and ran consistently and turning it into a fast-growth company that was highly leveraged.

“I knew we were growing, but I didn’t understand cash flow, so within the first five years I almost bankrupted the company. I was standing on the edge of bankruptcy before I finally figured out what was going on.”

He’s certainly figured it out now. Butterball Farms has been a national Best and Brightest Companies to Work For award winner the last eight years.

Peters talked about his company’s success and gave his perspective on a variety of other issues, during an appearance on “CEO Thought Leadership Series on LinkedIn Live,” discussion series hosted by the National Association of Business Resources.

Produced in conjunction with the Best and Brightest Companies to Work For and Corp! Magazine, the series is hosted by NABR CEO Jennifer Kluge and features business leaders from around the country.

Butterball Farms, Inc., is a butter manufacturing company, not to be confused with the turkey producer. Butterball Farms makes products that are butter-based, value-added butter products.

Jennifer Kluge: Those lessons toughen us and make us smarter for the next big challenge that comes our way. Tell us more about what you did to improve the culture, the retention rates, and what you’re continuing to do.

Mark Peters: I think the driving force has always been, ‘what are we doing for the people who work for us?’ That goes to creating our mission statement, “Enrich lives,” and our six guiding principles.

Being focused on how we’re doing that in the workforce is far more important. It was more about ‘are we really acting different than other employment experiences people have when they come to work for us. It was doing a 180-degree pivot in that work experience people were having inside our own company.

Kluge: Being a leader is about more than making money. It’s equally important to focus on the humans we work with and their wants and their needs. If you could describe your culture in one word, what would it be?

Peters: I would point back to our mission statement, “Enrich Lives.” The people who work for us experience that mission statement. If you were to talk to them and ask what it means to them, it’s going to be different (for everyone). We all bring our whole selves to work, and we all are very interesting as people. We have different likes and different backgrounds and different beliefs, and we show up in a common workplace. That’s a challenge … how do you do culture holistically, instead of just how I might think about it for me.

Kluge: Let’s talk about your book, “The Source.” Not everyone writes a book, so what morning did you wake up and say, ‘it’s time to write a book?’

Peters: No morning did I wake up and say ‘I want to write a book.’ (Laughing) It’s about the founding of the organization called “The Source.” The Source was really part of that early effort to redefine our culture. One of the things I realized is, going back to that holistic need that people bring into the workplace, was as a small company we didn’t have the band width to address the stability issues a lot of people faced, and I couldn’t afford to do it as a small company.

The idea was we could bring multiple employers together and task an outside organization with doing these things for the people who work for us, and doing it in a high-quality way.

I have a mentor who is always pushing me to do things. We were talking about the success of The Source, and he said, ‘That’s your book.” It was literally birthed over dinner with one of my mentors, then it took two years to make it happen.”

Kluge: We’ve been through all kinds of challenges on our paths. How did the pandemic hit different than some of the challenges in the past.

Peters: For us, first of all, it hit us fast. Our primary business is food service. Restaurants and hotels were shut down within 3 weeks. I think the business reality of having 40% of your revenue go away overnight is a shock.

What was interesting about it was we spend a lot of time doing strategic planning … and trying to anticipate things that we can’t see in normal trends.

There was literally nothing in the way the pandemic occurred that we could look at our team and say, ‘there is nothing we did that caused us to be in the situation we’re in. we weren’t financially reckless, we weren’t careless with customers, we weren’t careless in our community. It literally happened to us.

So let’s not beat ourselves up. What are we going to do and how can we enrich lives given this situation? We worked really hard to do that for our customers and the people who work for us.

Kluge: Success is subjective. Everyone has a different definition. What’s your definition of success, and have you achieved it?

Peters: For me, I don’t think it’s ever achievable. Success is ongoing. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Where I am right now about defining success is, it’s inspiring others to take action that has positive change in the world. If I can inspire others, that’s kind of the ultimate success.

Kluge: If I walked into your company as a new team member, what can I expect?

Peters: We do a cultural survey beyond the B&B surveys we do. We go back to the pandemic which we successfully navigate through. We learned a lot on culture; we had to downsize the organization, we had to make choices around team members, all very difficult things to do. As we were coming out we weren’t certain about what business was going to come back and what wasn’t, and whether the new things we were trying were going to work.

What I would hope you would find is this idea that “could I belong here?’ We want to create an environment where it’s not just about ‘can I do this job,’ it’s a matter of ‘do I want to be part of this environment.’

Kluge: What is your biggest challenge right now?

Peters: At some point, those challenges are the cost of doing business. We’re all experiencing those problems. The biggest issue for me, and where I think the solution lies, is the culture shift. How do we maintain this sense of belonging and how do we help people find success in their lives as part of their work. At the end of the day, those problems that come up in a business, whether it’s because of the pandemic or high interest rates … it’s the people being engaged in our business that are going to solve those problems and chart that course.

Kluge: What’s your next project?

Peters: I’m trying to finish a second book on talent systems. It’s a little more difficult than the first book … kind of a fun story, some of the family stuff is in the book.

This is really a challenge to us as employers about how we look at talent. What has fascinated me is we’re great at onboarding talent … when it comes time for people to leave, we’re really bad at that.

If there’s any big idea in the book that’s going to be really hard to get across it’s the idea that we actually help people find their next level of employment, which may be with us and may be with someone else.

It’s very counter-intuitive, especially when talent is hard to find in today’s market, but it goes back to what’s important to the people coming to work for us.

Kluge: Is there anything you would do differently?

Peters: The list is too long (laughs). The reality is I don’t have any regrets. We all make decisions that don’t turn out the way we thought they would. We all do it. The real question is what did we learn from those decisions?

Kluge: If there was a 35-year-old first time CEO in front of you, what advice would you fgive him?

Peters: I’d give a few pieces of advice. One would be, are your actions in line with who you are? The other is, of all the things you’re trying to change, which ones are really urgent, and which ones could you pause awhile so you’d have band width to change the urgent things and do it well.