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Don Janzen La Broquerie, Man.

THIS IS NOT THE STORYof a typical western Canadian farm, especially when you consider that HyLife is producing 1.3 million hogs a year, that it has 1,150 employees, and that it sells its branded pork products on four continents.

Yet HyLife (which recently changed its name from HyTek Ltd.) is definitely at the forefront of an emerging trend in agriculture — one that sees large farming enterprises combining business principles and homegrown values to deal with increasingly complex issues.

Don Janzen is one of HyLife’s founding partners. In 1994, Janzen and brothers Paul, Denis and Claude Vielfaure established the company with a shared vision of creating the most efficient and integrated operating structure for the production of hogs. This was a time of tremendous optimism in the swine industry in Manitoba and one that saw provincial hog production jump substantially.

HyLife’s original plan was to gear up to serve the burgeoning market for weanlings, especially in the U.S., and HyLife sold 50-pound weanlings both to a grower-finisher operation with whom it had a strategic alliance and to independent producers south of the border. It’s a model that worked well for a time and that enabled HyLife to grow and take on more business partners. Grant Lazaruk came on board in 1997 and Henry Van de Velde joined HyLife in 1998. Both brought with them expertise that complemented the knowledge and experience of the original partners.

Throughout this building phase, as Janzen calls it, HyLife made a conscious decision to control its major costs by setting up divisions to provide these services internally. For example, most of HyLife’s barns were built by its construction division. The company also established feed mills, which now number five, in order to supply the large amounts of feed consumed within its barns.

There is also a genetics company (Fast Genetics), plus a vet services division and one that deals with manure management.

Janzen says the strategy has been instrumental in enabling HyLife to weather the storm that has battered the Canadian hog industry since 2006. So has the company’s commitment to building a strong balance sheet. Profits made during years of strong prices were plowed back to reduce debt and provide capital.

But the most important thing the company has done, in Janzen’s opinion, has been to attract and retain the right kind of people. From the new partners who have been added to the other people on HyLife’s executive team, and from the middle managers, right down to the barn managers, truckers and barn staff, Janzen is struck by the level of respect, commitment and professionalism of HyLife’s workforce.

“It is going to sound like a bit of a cliché,” Janzen says, “but you need to surround yourself with good people. Our management team is made up of the five founders (Paul Vielfaure retired a few years ago) as well as six vice-presidents. We meet on a regular basis and challenge ourselves in a constructive manner to come up with a sound business plan. Then it’s a matter of executing it and empowering each individual to take care of the part of the plan that belongs to them.

“It helps that everyone around the table has a vested interest in the success of the business,” Janzen adds.

Robyn Harte, the business development specialist for swine with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), agrees that HyLife’s ability to attract good people and the innovativeness that this brings to a company have served it well.

“They’re all about letting people own their decisions,” Harte says. “Staff gets recognition for what they’re doing. They’re open, adaptable and flexible. They’ve also been quite successful in gaining control over their entire production system and this, I believe, has given them the ability to take advantage of opportunities.”

HyLife has certainly done that.

Janzen says there was always a certain amount of what he calls “border risk” involved with selling weanlings into the U.S. With country-of-origin labelling (COOL) on the horizon and with the unavoidable risk of disease closing the border, HyLife made another crucial strategic decision. This time it was to alter its model and to focus on selling a product (actual pork, rather than weanlings) to several customers rather than only one (the U.S.).

The purchase of an existing hog slaughter plant at Neepawa, Man. has enabled them to realize that vision. In addition to selling into the domestic market, HyLife is now selling pork to markets as diverse as Russia, Australia, South Korea and Mexico. It has even begun to sell fresh chilled pork into the high-value Japanese market.

When asked about the challenges of becoming a processor and marketer of meat products, Janzen again focuses on human resources.

While HyLife aims to hire and promote from within, they had to go outside to build a sales team for the Neepawa plant. Logistics was another gap in their internal knowledge base. “Now,” says Janzen, “we’re training our own people and moving them into key positions.”

It is HyLife’s management of the human resources challenges that come with running a large slaughter plant that earned it the Capturing Opportunities award for Economic Development Innovation that MAFRI handed out in the spring of 2009.

“HyLife was very successful on two fronts,” Harte explains. “First of all, they worked with the community at large to help with the integration of new workers and their families. But they also worked within the community of workers to meet their needs — things like offering English as a second language courses, for example, and making sure that the families of immigrant workers weren’t ghettoized.”

HyLife has also continued to expand its genetics division, Fast Genetics. It will soon be opening its sixth barn in China, bringing its productive capacity in that country up to 6,000 sows. It sells about 70 per cent of the gilts that it produces in these facilities into the breeding stock market. The rest of the females and the male pigs go for slaughter. This is similar to what happens in the Fast Genetics facilities that HyLife operates in North America.

In the case of the Chinese venture, Janzen says that HyLife has developed a strategic alliance with a local partner who takes care of all of the day-to-day operations. Still, HyLife personnel, including the owners, regularly travel to China to ensure proper oversight is provided and to make sure that things, according to Janzen, “are moving in the right direction.”

“There are cultural differences,” Janzen says. “But you learn to work within the parameters of that particular environment. And ultimately, the opportunity to become familiar with another way of doing and seeing things leaves you enriched”

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“ Ultimately, the opportunity to become familiar with another way of doing and seeing things leaves you enriched.”

— Don Janzen

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