Cobb-Vantress Inc. is celebrating 100 years as the oldest pedigree broiler breeding company in the world, and in this milestone year, a transition is taking place at its highest level.
Jerry Moye, president of Cobb, is retiring after 25 years with the company. Joel Sappenfield, who had worked for Tyson Foods Inc. since 1990, was appointed his successor in April, and will officially make the transition at the start of the company’s fiscal year, which is Oct. 2.
The Siloam Springs-based company, a subsidiary of Tyson Foods, sells its broiler breeding stock in more than 120 countries. It operates over 40 facilities worldwide and has 65 distributors.
“For any company to reach 100 years is a pretty big deal,” Sappenfield said.
It’s an achievement in itself and a testament to the company’s perseverance, investors and the three distributors who’ve been with the company for over 50 years, Moye said.
“We’ve had to weather some storms,” he said.
Moye, who announced his intentions to retire earlier this year, started working in poultry in 1974. He joined Cobb in 1991 when the company was starting to branch out into Asia and China, and technology in genetics was advancing.
A year earlier, Sappenfield joined Tyson Foods as a night supervisor and was working his way up the management ranks. He worked in 18 different positions in his 26-year career with the Springdale-based company.
He said change has always interested him, and after working for two years in prepared foods, he was ready to return to poultry. He was senior vice president of bakery before he started at Cobb in June.
While he’s not had any surprises since he started, he said the business is “pretty complex.” It’s a lot different, and he’s starting to grasp the genetic process. He’s also finding out just how big the company is and in how many countries it operates.
Sappenfield recently left for India and China to visit partners and operations in those countries. Earlier this summer, he traveled to Brazil.
“Cobb is much more of an international company,” Sappenfield said.
About 60 percent of Cobb’s revenue comes from business internationally, Moye said.
The company has 3,000 employees worldwide, with 600-700 employees in South America. Some of the more than 120 countries the company does business in are the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Turkey and New Zealand.
“We all have a hand in feeding the people of the world, and we’re all very proud of doing that,” Moye said.
Cobb began on the Old Pickard Farm in Littleton, Massachusetts, as a result of a physician’s recommendation.
On Nov. 20, 1916, Robert C. Cobb, a Harvard Business School graduate, purchased the 167-acre farm after his physician recommended he take up farming to help with his asthma. But the gentleman farmer quickly found that cattle and horses only made it worse.
His passion was poultry. So in 1920, he purchased Barred Rock pullets and three kerosene incubators.
After nine years of intelligent selection and breeding, the farm was the largest broiler breeder in the region for Barred Plymouth Rock and New Hampshire chickens.
By 1935, the farm had sold 1 million breeders.
In 1944, it was incorporated as Cobb’s Pedigreed Chicks.
Cobb started developing white-feathered poultry after purchasing White Plymouth Rocks.
The success of the bird’s introduction into the U.S. broiler breeder market in 1955 led Cobb to promote his product nationally.
He partnered with Paul Swanson, a Massachusetts breeder, and they developed their own Cornish male for cross-breeding. The business debuted in 1956 at the Atlanta Show.
In the 1960s, the company took its business overseas because of the volatility in the U.S. poultry industry. The first Cobb franchise started in Europe in 1959.
One of the first shipments was to the Cobb Breeding Company in the United Kingdom, where a joint breeding program started in the 1960s.
In 1961, a new hatchery was built in Siloam Springs, adjacent to where corporate headquarters relocated to in 1986.
The Cobb100, which is no longer available, was introduced in the U.S. in 1966. It had a global reputation for “outstanding reproductive performance” and “improved broiler traits,” according to Cobb’s website.
In the 1970s, demand for fresh rather than frozen chicken eventually led to the development of the Cobb500, hitting the U.S. market in 1983.
By the 1970s, the company was doing business internationally in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Ireland.
The Cobb family sold the business in 1974 to Upjohn, a U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturer, in order to increase its global presence.
As Cobb500 became popular across the United Kingdom and Europe, Arkansas Breeders, which was a partnership between Upjohn and Tyson Foods, introduced the popular bird to the U.S. The move united Cobb’s and Tyson Foods’ Vantress breeding lines. Thus, the new company, Cobb-Vantress Inc. was born.
The partnership was so successful that Tyson Foods purchased the entire business in 1994.
Cobb eventually relocated its headquarters to Siloam Springs as the industry was heading south, closer to the Midwest grain belt.
When New England companies started closing, the logical choice was to move, Moye said. Besides, the New England climate was not easy to manage.
The most significant change at Cobb has been the investment by Tyson Foods, whose 1994 acquisition allowed the company to become more global, Moye said.
Tyson Foods produces 40 million chickens a week, and it becomes more efficient every year, Moye said. And as its business improves, so does Cobb’s.
While he declined to release revenue numbers, Moye said the company has been experiencing 8 to 10 percent growth annually for the past five or six years. Cobb maintains a 47 to 48 percent world market share in the broiler breeder business.
“Cobb produces a grandparent level chicken and delivers it to producers and distributors,” said Trevor Gies, the company’s marketing manager for North America. “They take the grandparents to make parents. Distributors sell parent stock to customers in their distributor region who then breed them and make broilers, the chickens you buy at the store or eat in a restaurant.”
Cobb’s most successful product is the Cobb500, which was released in 1983. The chicken was developed by breeding together four individual lines of purebred stock.
These four purebred lines produce a “very well-rounded broiler,” Moye said. A newer product, the Cobb700, which produces significantly more breast meat, was introduced in 2001.
Moye attributes the company’s success to its ability “to attract a lot of talented people who enjoy working for Cobb. Number one, it’s all about the people.”
Also, the company has great products, ownership and relationships. And, because Cobb is a business-to-business operation, its relationships are built on long-term commitments, he said. The company must be close to and transparent with those whom it does business.
As president, Sappenfield will remain focused on its customers. Some of his top goals include the company’s focus on its people, processes and the product.
The native of Mountain View, Oklahoma, said he’s “grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a great team.” Cobb has a great culture, and “the safety of our team members is a top goal going forward.”
As far as its processes, “we’ve got to continue to refine them, every step of the way.” And with its product, the company must remain “on the leading edge of technology.”
While he hasn’t determined what he will change as president, he expects he will eventually find something that needs to be changed. “I didn’t come in with the mentality I’m going to change this or that,” he said, and sees not finding something that needs changing as a good thing.
Moye’s help in the transition has been invaluable, Sappenfield said. Moye is involving Sappenfield in key meetings, teaching him how to “dance around issues” and showing him how something this year might impact the company a year from now.
“Cobb’s got a great product, great customer service,” Sappenfield said. “The windshield is always bigger than the rear view mirror.”
Before joining Cobb, Moye was working in California and was looking to work his way back east. His first job was in Gainesville, Georgia.
“I’m an East Coast person,” he said. But Arkansas was a perfect stepping stone to the direction he wanted to go, and Tyson Foods was about to purchase Cobb. Soon, he found himself heading to Arkansas.
“I took it on a flyer,” he said.
After 41 years in the poultry business, he’s announced his plans to retire.
“Our business is a very time consuming business,” he said. “A lot of time on the road.”
He often travels overseas and is gone for two or more weeks at a time.
“I’m just ready to not travel now like that,” he said. “There are other things I want to do.”
Moye plans to remain in Arkansas and will play more golf. He lives in Rogers with his wife, Cherie, and has a cabin near Beaver Lake. He serves on executive boards for JDRF and Circle of Life Hospice.
He said he wants to continue to work in the industry on the agriculture side. Moye is incoming chairman of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association.
When he retires, the people with whom he’s worked are who he’ll miss the most, Moye said. He’s made great friends throughout the industry.