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Butterball Farms Inc.: Because Butter Should Be Beautiful
Mark Peters grew up in the butter business. In 1956 his father, Leo Peters, founded the Michigan-based dairy operation known as Butterball Farms Inc. (Butterball). “I took over in 1995 at the age of 30,” explains Mark. “We had started having internal discussions about innovations. Packaged butter really hasn’t changed very much in 100 years.”
According to Mark, his father drew inspiration from Whitman’s Sampler Chocolates, which are presented in different shapes and designs, offering a more creative exterior. “Butter should be beautiful,” says Mark, quoting Butterball’s philosophy.
Years later Butterball continues to offer standard butter to customers, but Butterball’s specialty is in molded butter, which is available today in several shapes and sizes from Thanksgiving turkeys to discs with printed logos for hotel chains. According to Mark, what makes his team stand out in the industry is a dedication to customer needs. “We anticipate what chefs want,” he explains. Ideal size, shape and branding are secondary only to integrity at Butterball. “We’ve carved out a specific niche in quality, beautiful butter products,” says Mark proudly.
Building Better Butter
Making innovations to a product that has gone unchanged for hundreds of years can be a difficult task. “It’s a commodity,” explains Mark. “People don’t want to pay a lot of money for it.” To stay on track, Butterball has to maintain high-volume business. In most applications, butter on its own needs no fancy shape, but Butterball serves a very specific market, including large restaurants, catering operations and hotels. The company prepares custom molds for clients using a specific technique that helps the sometimes-stubborn butter hold its shape during the molding process and through delivery.
When manufacturers first started producing molded butter, the company’s competition saw a price benefit in leaving butter in the mold for customers to worry about removing instead of investing in equipment and innovations. Often the butter would get stuck, ruining its shape. To resolve this issue, Butterball pioneered a packaging format known as E-Z-Serve, which eliminated the need for customers to handle the mold.
“It’s always about more than price with our customers,” says Mark. “They appreciate the convenience more than saving money.” The team set out to provide a product that better served the needs of chefs and serving staffs, investing in better equipment, materials and practices.
Butterball has grown to the point where the team can manage high-volume sales without compromising on quality. The company currently employs 125 people and has recently implemented a process automation project. “We’ve reached the size where we can afford that kind of investment,” says Mark. Without being too large, quality control is manageable and Butterball remains flexible enough to offer innovations through a highly regarded research and development department.
Mark credits Lucia Falek, the company’s director of quality and development, with many of the business’ recent innovations. Falek excels at quality assurance, but, Mark says, “On one side, she’s also a scientist. She’s analytical but creative. She comes up with some crazy product ideas and she knows how to make them work.”
The innovative team at Butterball is currently working on some new product designs and flavors and plans to provide custom-flavored butters to its customers in the near future. “We have over 100 recipes,” explains Mark. “We’ve got one product, a pink rose, made of raspberry-flavored butter.”
Greg Nogler, general manager of Butterball’s Canadian operations and vice president of corporate marketing, has been integral to the company’s marketing. “Greg knows more about our products than anybody in the company,” laughs Mark. “He helps us figure out how to best hit the market with our newer products.”
The company’s size has also helped Butterball maintain strong relationships with clients and suppliers alike. “We have long-term ties with Michigan milk producers,” says Mark, citing one example. The dairy suppliers have consistently provided safe, quality butter and cream to the business, which Mark says is invaluable to Butterball’s success. A network of distributors helps Butterball move products around North America safely and efficiently, maintaining taste, quality and form.
Mark puts great emphasis on people, as his corporate officers come from a wide range of backgrounds from science to the automotive industry. Mark works hard to provide benefits to all employees and encourages them to get involved with the community.
“We want all of our people plugged into a larger purpose,” explains Mark. “Our leadership team serves several nonprofit organizations.” To keep his team engaged, Mark believes in giving his staff control in the company. “We want to give our people the freedom to do what they’re good at,” he explains. “Because of that I think we have a lot less oversight. We’ve built a really great corporate culture.”
The working environment helps Mark’s team push the company forward onto the next big venture. The business is poised to take over the leading market position in the manufacturing and distribution of specialty butters. “We’re not opposed to joint ventures,” adds Mark. “We’ve got a lot of talent to bring to the table.” Butterball is building success upon talent as well as ingenuity and dedication, three qualities the team at Butterball Farms Inc. will carry into the next big, better butter thing.