When Jayson Penn graduated from Florida State Univ., there was little doubt that his career would be in the poultry industry. In fact, he is the 4th generation of his family to work in the industry. And now, he’s reached a major leadership role. Today, he is president and CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride Global, part of JBS S.A., a Brazilian-owned multi-national food company, one of the largest chicken producers in the United States and Puerto Rico, and the second-biggest chicken producer in Mexico.
Penn grew up in the New York City area – his great-grandfather Max Penn raised fowl in upstate New York in the 1940s. In the early 1950s, his grandfather Jack Penn started Manor Poultry Processors and then founded Pine Valley Poultry Distributors, a poultry wholesale company for inner city distribution to chicken outlet retail stores and restaurants in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York. His father Ron then moved the business into the next generation.
“In 1981, my Dad moved our family to Conyers, Georgia, about 20 miles east of Atlanta,” he says in a New York accent that is reminiscent of his upbringing. “He specialized in dark meat products for both domestic and export markets, ahead of his time for American tastes. In the mid-1980s, his company became one of the regular suppliers of white and dark meat for the newly created McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.”
And it doesn’t appear that the chicken business tradition is going to stop with the 4th generation. Penn has four daughters, and his oldest went to school where he did – Florida State – and interned last summer at Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., where Penn has been CEO and president since early last year, succeeding William W. Lovette in the position. “So now, there’s a 5th Penn generation in the poultry industry,” Penn says with a laugh. “She’s now a trainee at Pilgrim’s.”
Penn joined Pilgrim’s in 2011 as senior vice president of the commercial business group, and then became president of Pilgrim’s USA. Before coming to Pilgrim’s, he held management positions at Sanderson Farms and Marshall Durbin Cos. He also was director of sales for Case Foods. He got his business training at Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.
He also plays a prominent role in industry organizations and associations, serving on the board of USA Poultry and Egg Export Council in the past, currently secretary/treasurer of the National Chicken Council, and recently joined the board of The World Poultry Foundation.
“It’s very important for us to play a strong role in these associations and organizations. This is how we strengthen our industry,” he says.
Penn is always looking back to his beginnings in the family poultry business and is grateful for the exposure. “At an early age, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn many facets of the business through working alongside my dad. So, I’ve been in the industry for close to 35 years – it’s an industry of great people and one that I’m passionate about and have been involved with one way or another for as long as I can remember.”
But it’s also where he was fired from a job, the only time in his life – by his father. He learned a lesson that’s stayed with him ever since.
“It was my senior year in high school, and he fired me from my job at our family business before I went to college. I learned the hard way I wasn’t using the values I was supposed to, that came from my family, in my leadership position with the business,” he says. “It taught me people should always be first in an organization. I remember that lesson to this day and try to observe it in everything I do in life – not just on the job,” he says.
After college, he came back to work for his dad. “After spending one year at Pine Valley Farms, I had the opportunity to meet Joe Sanderson at Sanderson Farms as he was growing his business in Mississippi. Joe asked my dad if I would like to join the company as a trainee in his McComb, Mississippi, plant. They had an excellent training program and I learned a lot in my two years in Mississippi. Then Sanderson was involved in a startup in Bryan, Texas – a fast-food processing plant. We supplied the major fast-food operators and foodservice broadline distributors.”
“I spent four years in Texas before an opportunity came to move to Birmingham, Alabama, at the Marshall Durbin Cos., and to Morganton, North Carolina, working for 11 years at Case Foods. March 2020 will be my ninth year at Pilgrim’s.
“The reason I’m telling you this is while it’s important to have all this experience – even more valuable is working for great mentors. For all of us, no matter what we’re doing in life, it’s important to have great people investing in us, showing us the way.” For Penn, most of all, it was his dad.
“He taught me to take ownership of what I do, be accountable. My dad worked countless hours and weekends. And I learned great people values from him. Also, working with Bill Lovette at both Case Foods and Pilgrim’s taught me several things, including the significance of a strong and healthy culture, the importance of setting the vision and strategy for a company, the absolute need for managing the details, and that winning is best when shared by the team.”
Agreeing with that assessment is Gilberto Tomazoni, chairman of Pilgrim’s board of directors, who thinks Penn’s selection as global president and CEO last year “is further validation of the Pilgrim’s strategy, implemented in 2012, to create a unique, diversified portfolio across multiple geographies, with a focus on key customers and operational excellence, and to generate higher and more consistent margins. Jayson has been at the forefront of this strategy.”
There’s no doubt Penn has played a critical role in the success of the company over the past nine years. When the company filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008 after a year of losses, it operated through the process, closing and selling plants and reducing its production. Then it emerged from protection after a year, including selling a majority ownership stake to JBS S.A.
But Penn said the company could further improve by focusing more on people. “Four years ago, we changed our vision and strategy to include ‘people’ as a foundational pillar. Each year since that change, we’ve been promoting more team members internally. Last year, nearly 800 team members were promoted in the US and more than 1,300 advanced globally.”
The company is also diversifying. “This year, we acquired Tulip Ltd., a pork processor and the largest pig farmer in the United Kingdom. Pork is a new protein for us, which presents the opportunity for continued growth as a strong food business in the UK.”
Penn talks about his management style and team approach, saying he sets the direction and clear expectations for the company. “But then our team is empowered to operate with autonomy and collaboration. My responsibility is to ensure others in the company have the same opportunities I’ve been afforded by investing in the next generation of leaders. I want others to participate in leading the business.”
He believes it’s important to concentrate on a core business, based on key customers as part of a healthy growth strategy. “We cultivate key customers by developing trust over years, not months, and we focus on relationships, not transactions. Our goal is to invest in and grow our customers’ business, which in turn affords us the opportunity to grow with them. To be a total solution provider, we encourage our customers to work with multiple parts of our business. And we want to have enough representation in each one of the channels and segments in which we participate to be both important and impactful to our key customers.”
Pilgrim’s has evolved a lot over the years, Penn says. “The company has been transformed in a major way. Ten years after the bankruptcy, you can see how not only our financials have improved, but we’ve also improved on a relative basis to the industry.” The Pilgrim’s family of brands serve the company’s diverse needs. “Our large stable of brands focus on the US, Mexico and Europe. Just Bare Chicken is the No. 1 chicken brand on Amazon Fresh.”
He points to re-opening the China market as an important victory for the American industry. Sustainability is a high priority. “Right now, the world consumes 1½ times what the planet’s natural resources can continue to provide. By 2050, 70 percent more food will be needed. We must do more with less.”
For Penn, it is very important personally for Pilgrim’s to play a major role in helping the communities where they are located. “Whether it’s helping schools or non-profit organizations, each of our facilities is empowered to play a part.”
That commitment extends beyond the dinner table. “We understand the responsibility that comes with being a major employer, and we are committed to the success of our communities. That goes back to the way I was raised, the part my family played in the communities where we lived and worked.”