It’s a rare person who steps forward to take on the hardest tasks. Steve Murphy is one of those rare people. A self-described “fixer,” he relishes the idea of taking on a challenge. His professional track-record from his stint as a pharmacist to selling seed corn to creating the satellite information system Broadcast Partners to a long list of other entrepreneurial projects reflects Murphy’s tendency to see opportunity when others see a half-empty glass.

In 2001, he signed on to be the National Pork Board’s chief executive officer. The industry and its organizations were in disarray. The national pork checkoff program had just failed a referendum, lawsuits were pending, NPB was operating under a restraining order. But Murphy knew he could contribute to and learn from the adventure. 

Growing up in Kentland, Ind., Murphy’s dad was an over-the-road truck driver who was gone much of the week, which placed extra responsibility on the oldest of five children. His mother was Mrs. America in 1961, requiring her to travel. “I traveled with her some and got my first taste of seeing the country and meeting people,” he says. It’s a taste that has stayed with him as “working  with people, building relationships and making things happen” motivates him.

Now, as he steps down from his NPB CEO post, he’s looking for another challenge. By his side are his wife of 38 years, Linda, son Jason, daughter Meggan and their families. Where it might lead, “who knows,” he says. But rest assured it will include new experiences and lessons.

What interested you about the NPB position?

What motivates me more than anything is a challenge. The pork checkoff was in difficult straits. The agriculture secretary had shut down the program, a referendum failed and lawsuits were pending. Rather than scare me away, it was a great opportunity to go in and fix things, to make a real difference for people.

So I looked at the glass as being half full rather than half empty. But what sealed the deal was the board of directors. They were honest about the challenges and they gave me the tools to fix the problem. They identified the most important thing to fix: “We need producer support back for this program.” That let me focus. 

Did you expect to stay in the job for seven years?

I look at everything in three-year increments. If you’re starting a new business, it takes a year to hatch the idea, a year to implement the idea, a year to get the financials going so that you have positive cash flow. I looked at NPB as a three-year challenge. One thing that carried me beyond that was the First Amendment (checkoff) challenge that went to the Supreme Court.

But now it’s time for me to step aside. I’ve given the organization all I really have to give, and it needs someone new to take it to the next level. I see myself as a business builder or fixer, and frankly I don’t think the checkoff needs either right now. Firm management and continued refinement can carry it to the next level.

What surprised you most about the pork industry?

I was stunned at the rift that existed within the industry and the organizations. I expected everyone to recognize the problems that existed and to be on the same page to find solutions. 

The relationship between NPB and the National Pork Producers Council was strained by competitiveness, which caused the producer leadership to focus on tactical things like a program. The two boards were further strained by a tug-of-war for control over who got to make decisions. So, I focused on establishing NPB’s vision. In the end, it was decided that NPB is here for one reason — to enhance the opportunity for U.S. pork producer profitability. Once that was established and agreed upon, you could bring people back to that focus.

We have come a long way. NPPC and NPB have a collaborative and cooperative relationship today. Differences of opinion still exist and are expressed, but when we walk out of the door we act as one.

What were your priorities for the job?

I established six foundational priorities. First, we had to meet with producers and state leaders and listen to what they had to say. I knew the answers to the challenges existed with them.

Second was to get the right people on the bus and get them to work as a team, because a true team can accomplish so much more than just a group of people.

Third, we needed to create a culture that embraced change. To regain producer support, we needed extensive change, and staff support for that change was essential.

Fourth, NPB established a mantra of value-based communications, ensuring that checkoff value was communicated with every producer touch. Producers needed to know where their money was going and how they could benefit. Communicating this effectively was central to regaining producer trust and support. 

The fifth priority was to establish an issue-oriented versus department-oriented structure. I quickly recognized that the industry’s issues usually crossed multiple departments. They weren’t just science based or demand based. That got people working together more.

Sixth was to establish staff accountability and a commitment to maximize producers’ return on their checkoff investment. That meant setting annual goals for each employee and building a Web-based scorecard where producer leaders could monitor progress.

Checkoff is responsible for research, education and promotion. What do you see as the progress and challenges for those areas?

During my tenure, the research investment grew the most, and for good reason. Research has had to address a wide variety of emerging issues like animal care, diseases like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and circovirus. It tends to receive strong producer support because most issues tie directly back to their farms. The key question is what issues should the pork checkoff own and which belong to private enterprise or the U.S. government? Checkoff resources are limited. If by spreading resources over too many issues NPB’s program strategies become a mile wide and an inch deep, then we cease to be effective.

In education, we focused on an effective and efficient knowledge-transfer process, with technology as the key tool. NPB has built Web-based systems to custom-deliver information, programs and learning options for all production systems. NPB has more pressure to deliver in this area because of funding cuts in various government and university support networks.

Promotion needs to be divided into two parts: domestic and exports.

In the past several years, pork hasn’t gained much ground in domestic demand,  as measured by pounds consumed on an annual basis. So a few years ago, we decided to change our domestic marketing approach. We re-branded “The Other White Meat” and more clearly defined our target audience to  25- to 49-year-old females.

We also redefined how we would measure success, making increasing domestic pork expenditures the over-arching objective. That makes sense because 31 percent of pork expenditures at retail goes back to the farm. The higher that pork expenditures are, the more money that flows back to producers. We now have integrated marketing strategies for foodservice, retail, consumer communications and public relations with one central focus — driving higher domestic pork expenditures.

On the export side, it didn’t take long to realize if the industry wanted to grow, it could only do that through exports. So about five years ago the board challenged me to personally manage the export side. In collaboration with U.S. Meat Export Federation and NPPC, we’ve seen some phenomenal   success. In 2001, the industry exported  $1.5 billion in value; this year it’s estimated to be $4.5 billion — 22 percent of U.S. pork production. 

Exports are an example of when pork producers focus on one thing and put resources behind it, they can make unbelievable things happen.

What was your greatest satisfaction in the job?

It’s hard to boil it down to one. Stabilizing the checkoff and securing its future for the near term ranks high, as does earning producer support. When I started in 2001, a producer survey showed only 48 percent supported the checkoff. We now do a third-party survey every November, and last year, 73 percent of producers supported it.

A third one would be growing the export market, because it clearly established U.S. pork as a global leader.

What is the pork industry’s greatest asset?

Talented people who are passionate about what they do and are incredibly unselfish. I can’t believe the amount of time producer leaders spend away from their businesses to improve the industry as a whole.

What’s the industry’s greatest future challenge?

The biggest challenge, and it isn’t just for the pork industry, is how quickly and dramatically the operating environment can change. For example, corn going from $2 to $8 to $4, in 1.5 years. It makes it hard to plan long term and keep your eye on the goal.

Also, as the United States leads in pork trade, it must be willing to accept the responsibilities that go with that position.

What advice would you offer pork executives?

This industry tends to focus on science to defend itself on issues. I don’t think that approach as a major strategy sells anymore. Science is important, but there are social and moral responsibilities. For this industry to earn the public’s trust, it needs to focus on and commit to doing the right things as much as doing things right. In the past year, the industry adopted the ethical principles statement, which outlines what doing the right things mean. But it only takes one bad actor to reflect poorly on all. So my advice is that the world doesn’t end at your door. We all have a responsibility to each other to do the right things and to accept that we are a part of a larger community.

What’s the most meaningful lesson that you will take with you?

I learned quickly that the answers to the industry’s problems exist among its people. What I needed was to have quality conversations, be a very good listener, and the solutions would surface. It comes back to this industry’s biggest asset, its people; they hold the answers to their challenges. It has been demonstrated to me over and over during my seven years with the U.S. pork industry.