Steve Hunt

Steve Hunt Honored with the 2023 Industry Achievement Award

Hunt’s visionary leadership of U.S. Premium Beef was recognized at Feeding Quality Forum.

by Morgan Boecker

August 23, 2023

When the cattle industry needed a leader, Steve Hunt stepped up.

Sure, it was a group effort to launch U.S. Premium Beef (USPB) – ranchers, cattle feeders and allied industry – but they all say one man made the difference between success and failure.

USPB board member Jerry Bohn calls Hunt “a leader, an innovator, an entrepreneur, an idea guy and an executer.” All of that and more made Hunt shine. He was honored on August 22 with the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) 2023 Industry Achievement Award, presented at the Feeding Quality Forum event.

The beef industry was in trouble in the 1980s and ’90s when more than 400,000 ranchers exited. Choice and Prime were no more than 55% of fed cattle production, so “it was a coin toss whether a steak was going to be good or bad,” says Randy Blach, CattleFax CEO. “Beef demand was cut in half from 1979 to 1998. The industry was like a buoy in the ocean, directionless.”

Fear of irrelevance had sparked conversations among a group of 21 cow-calf producers in 1995. Always with economics in mind, Hunt says he saw an opportunity to integrate from the bottom up.

First need: value-based pricing to pay on individual carcass merit. Second, information back to producers from the packer to guide changes at the ranch and feedyard. Third, they needed to gain a direct influence on processing. The group embarked on what they called the “Blue Sky Tour” to share their vision with potential stakeholders.

“As you can imagine, a lot of eyes fogged over when we mentioned that we wanted to become a processor,” Hunt says. Trust was a major challenge.

Steve Hunt receives 2023 Industry Achievement Award

“Steve would tell you he’s the worst salesman, but he’s very good at explaining the big concept and relating it to producers, too,” says Stan Linville, current CEO of USPB. “He broke down barriers and effectively communicated with each partner what they had to do to make this idea work.”

Hesitancy often met the campaign to find nearly 500 cattlemen to purchase at least 100 shares at $55 apiece. That would secure 100 carcass hooks and payment on their individual merit. Perseverance paid.

“His confidence gave the rest of us confidence to buy in,” says Mark Gardiner, partner at Gardiner Angus Ranch and founding USPB member.

With nearly a million cattle lined up, Hunt and this rogue group of cattlemen negotiated an opportunity to buy up to 50% ownership of the fourth largest beef processor in the U.S.

Naturally, Hunt was named CEO.

“Steve was a bridge builder,” says Tracy Thomas, vice president of marketing for USPB. “He built relationships so that all segments would talk to each other. Everybody involved learned the quality of their cattle, what we were doing well and what we needed to improve.”

Steve Hunt shaking hands with Stan Linville
“USPB has pressed me in every single way–mentally and physically and intellectually–just to accomplish this,” Steve Hunt says. But every person he met was a learning opportunity, from producers at the ranch to the people on Wall Street.

“The biggest thing Steve did for producers was say, ‘Do what you do best: produce,’” says Linville. “And he let National Beef do what they do best, which was run the beef processing side.”

It was a journey to grow pounds efficiently while marbling also increased. While USPB members received feedback from the packer first, Hunt realized improvements in quality and opportunity for value-based marketing were important for the whole industry.

“I like to say it was synergistic: when we incentivized quality cattle, the other processors did, too,” Gardiner says. “We egged them on to do the same thing to compete. That is what has changed the demand equation for beef cattle today.”

For 15 years, Hunt led USPB with its shareholders in mind as the company continued to grow and succeed. He oversaw USPB becoming a majority owner and parent company of the packer and renamed it National Beef Packing Company in 2003. Then in 2004, he restructured USPB into a limited liability company to allow for more market opportunities.

Hunt’s last mark as CEO was leading negotiations for USPB to sell the majority interest in the packing company to Leucadia National Corporation. This gave USPB members liquidity to pass along to the next generation while maintaining the value-based pricing and information transfer.

Some would look at the data to define success. Numbers like $730 million in premiums USPB members earned through 2022 by delivering more than 18.3 million cattle. Members who made the equity investment, plus associates who lease and deliver cattle total 2,900 producers from 38 states.

The average grid premium the first year was barely $10 per head. In 2022, premiums averaged over $70 per head. USPB cattle have improved from just 45% Choice to average 88% Choice or higher today.   

Value-based marketing might have saved beef demand, Hunt says. “But the measure of success is looking at our members and seeing their sons and daughters in business with them.”

Caption: (left to right) John Stika, CEO at Certified Angus Beef; Steve Hunt, 2023 Industry Achievement Award honoree; and Mark Gardiner, Partner at Gardiner Angus Ranch, presented the award on August 22, 2023 during Feeding Quality Forum.

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