Every day, in places around the world, people walk into restaurants and are told they’re in for a special treat because they’ve ordered Heritage Angus Beef.
In southern Ontario, putting Heritage Angus at the centre of its marketing campaign has fuelled the success of the Hero Certified Burger chain, which has 31 stores. And its steaks are the featured item at the very upscale Le Grill, the showcase restaurant of the five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski on the shore of Lake Geneva ($800 per night for a basic room and $11,000 nightly for the presidential suite).
Not bad for a group of Western Canadian ranchers who started out just eight years ago in the throes of the BSE crisis with a daring idea they could sell their pasture-raised, antibiotic-free beef for a premium.
“When we started, we just had a name and didn’t know anything about branding beef, marketing or selling at retail,” says Christoph Weder, a rancher in Alberta’s Peace River region and the group’s CEO and director of marketing. “We were just grateful at the beginning that there was a retailer (a small B.C. grocery chain) that was willing to buy our beef.”
The group, started by Weder and fellow Alberta rancher Cliff Drever, began with a dozen cattle producers who anted up a $2,000 membership fee. and set themselves the highly ambitious long-term goal of selling 10,000 head a year. Today, it’s three-quarters of the way to that goal and sales – currently $16 million annually – are growing by 25 per cent a year.
That’s mostly the result of the work done by Weder, a six-foot-three force of nature with boundless energy and an irrepressible passion for raising what he calls “solar-powered forage harvesters” in an environmentally sustainable way.
Here is his short version of what’s happened since the group started: “First we added the Angus attribute and then some more certifications such as the Verified Beef Production and requiring environmental farm plans. Obviously we needed to do branding and create an image of what we stand for. So we did a video about our program and a high-end website that makes us look like Rolex: Five-star quality. We developed point-of-sale materials, brochures, a cookbook that tells our story in English, German and Italian, and learned how to market overseas. We now do halal slaughter, a branded box beef program, and we have our own burger program so we can use the trim. I guess it’s a lot, but I don’t think about it much.”
In addition, Weder – paid a per-head fee for his services and supported only by a logistics manager and admin person – provides all ongoing customer service. Along with Hero Certified Burgers (Heritage Angus ranches are third-party certified on everything from genetics to animal welfare, and all beef is fully traceable), the group also supplies Sobeys in Quebec and Ontario, and two smaller B.C. chains. But the Canadian side is now the smaller part of the group’s operation.
“We export over half of what we produce to Europe; with Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy being the main ones as well as some to Dubai and Hong Kong,” says Weder. “We’re sending a couple of containers a month to Europe and we air freight once a week to Switzerland.”
Weder spends about three months on the road each year, including three or four trips to Europe, to visit existing customers, woo potential prospects, and do promotional work. In between, the father of four is on Twitter and Facebook, cranking out YouTube videos (see heritageangus.ca), calling customers (Weder speaks German and his wife Erika speaks French), and running Spirit View Ranch (10,000 owned and leased acres north of Rycroft, Alta., with 800 breeding females, 800 yearlings, a consulting business, and grass and alfalfa seed production – spiritviewranch.com).
Weder admits he’s a workaholic, but says it’s not the length of his work week that makes him different.
“Lots of people work really hard,” says the 41-year-old. “Our producers all do, but most of them want to be working on their ranch, not doing the kind of things that Erika and I are doing.”
The group now has 14 ranchers (some of the original members have dropped out because the program makes extra demands of producers) and although they have additional costs, their net return per animal is significantly higher than their commodity cousins.
“But it’s not just about the premium – it’s about controlling your own destiny,” says Weder. “On the commodity side, there’s only two big packing plants, which means two customers for your cows. We have our own packing, distribution and sales channels. And we know what we’ll get paid before the cattle are even born.”
So what’s Weder’s advice for groups of producers searching for a premium market?
He says a superior product isn’t enough — you need top-notch marketing. But, he adds, you can’t just hire a sales rep and expect results.
“You can’t hire passion,” says Weder. “No one knows more than I do about what goes into our product. When someone tries to beat me down on price, I’ll fire right back at them and say, ‘Maybe you should run cows for a while in our business and you’ll understand why we price it like we do.’ I think I have a lot of power when it comes to selling because I know the story better than anyone else.”
And don’t expect the challenges, or the workload, will ever slack off, he adds.
“Don’t imagine you’ll ever be able to sit back and just reap the rewards,” he says. “If you’re looking for a premium, you’ll soon find there’s no runner-up prize. You’ve got to stay in front, and that means sticking with it and working on it every day.”