By Betsy Freese
The story of Bob Christensen is tragic in many ways, as is the story of anyone who dies in the prime of life. How his family and his farm business, one of the largest pork production companies in the U.S., reacted to his abrupt passing is a lesson in moving on.
On November 3, 2012, Robert Christensen, 51, founder and CEO of Christensen Farms & Feedlots, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, died of a heart attack while hunting with friends and son, Cubby, 14.
“I got a phone call from Cubby. He said, ‘Dad’s had a stroke or heart attack. He was flown out and they are taking care of him,’ ” says Mary Ann Christensen, Bob’s widow and mother of their children, Robert, Jr., (Cubby) and Kellen, 11. She soon got another call that Bob had not survived.
“He died doing something he loved, surrounded by people he loved,” says Mary Ann. His quick death was a blessing, she says, because, “Bob would have been a horrible patient if anything debilitating had happened.”
The viewing, funeral, and burial were attended by 800 people from across the country. Farm workers drove 10 hours to come to the wake and then drove back that night to start their next shift, say Mary Ann. “It was amazing. Bob would have been embarrassed. The church was overflowing.”
As funeral plans were being made, senior management and advisors met to determine what the family-owned company of 1,000 employees producing 3.5 million hogs a year should look like both short- and long-term. They knew they had to reassure employees, many hand picked and hand groomed by Bob, to move forward.
On Monday morning there were a lot of teary eyes and uncertainty, says his younger brother Lynn. “It was reassuring to see individuals rise up, strap their boots on, and show faith in the company. That was awe inspiring.”
Lynn Christensen, or Spike, as the family calls him, ran the construction side of the business until the late 1990s, and then got a degree in architecture and moved to Denver to work as a developer. The day Bob died, Lynn knew he needed to come back to Sleepy Eye to support the family and company. “I didn’t have a choice; after all it’s a family business.”
Bob left a solid succession plan for Christensen Farms. The company continues to be family owned by Mary Ann and Lynn, with support from a strong management team and board of directors.
“After the initial chaos around the funeral it became clear we would pull together as a team,” says Mary Ann. “Spike and the senior management meshed. I decided quickly my main focus had to be on the kids.” She attends board and advisory meetings, but lets Lynn and Glenn Stolt, who was the chief financial officer at the time of Bob’s death and is now CEO, run the business.
In addition, Bob’s long-time legal counsel and close friend Gary Koch provided stability and counsel, she says. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to Gary.” He continues on as Christensen Farms’ legal counsel in addition to sitting on the board of directors.
Ups and downs
The history of Bob and Mary Ann has as many peaks and valleys as the hog market. She grew up in South Carolina and was director of research for the agriculture construction company Hog Slat when she was asked to fly to Minnesota to meet a farmer who had issues with a sow unit.
“I broke that rule and went out with a customer for a beer,” says Mary Ann. Before long she was riding in the front seat of a red pickup between Bob and Spike on her way to a “hag and stag” in New Ulm. Welcome to Minnesota, you betcha.
“Twenty two years later and a lot of ups and downs and arounds, here I am,” says Mary Ann. When the kids came, Bob, who had started raising hogs at age 12, wanted to be at home more, “but the company needed him. He couldn’t stop,” she says. A typical day found Bob calling her mid-afternoon to ask if he could bring six people home for dinner. “Six would be 16,” says Mary Ann.
“He could sit around a bonfire with his staff and drink beer, and then chew them out at work the next day,” she says. “He expected excellence. It didn’t matter if someone was his friend – there was a job to do.”
Bob went to bat for some people, she says, and “for other people he had no mercy. Done. Fired.” At the funeral, one former employee told her, “I hated him for awhile until I realized he was right.”
Staffing decisions took a personal toll on him, she says. “Many nights he agonized over things. If someone wasn’t cutting it, it was very hard for him. Those are tough decisions. My father kept business and social very separate. Here it was pleasure and business, beer on the patio. Bob and I had heated arguments about it and he ignored what I said.”
The most stressful time, she says, was a decade ago when Bob was designing Triumph Foods, the first farmer-owned pork packing plant in the U.S. “Triumph was a struggle because nobody had done it,” says Mary Ann. “Bob did not want to be on the bleeding edge; he was a quick adopter, but didn’t want to be the first one. He analyzed it to the nth degree times 50,000, but once he made up his mind he moved forward and had fun. Getting to the point to push the go button -- that was the worst.”
The stress took its toll on their marriage. Bob and Mary Ann separated for three and a half years and then reconciled. “We got along much better when we were separated,” says Mary Ann. “He lived in New Ulm and I lived here with the kids.” They got back together, she says, “Once we figured out, as all couples do, how much information to share.” She didn’t want to hear about Christensen Farms 24-7 and it wasn’t healthy for him to work night and day.
Lynn Christensen remembers the hard-driving days when he and Bob were building Christensen Farms. “In the early days we frequently started at the crack of dawn and ended at midnight in the bank building [home of their first office], discussing ongoing activities and planning until 2 a.m., and then we got up at 6:00 and did it again.”
The goal was to build the best infrastructure for pork production in the industry, one that would remain long-term, says Lynn. “Everybody just fell into Bob’s vision. We all had an area of specialty. It was never about making money quickly and then departing the industry. The buildings, genetics, feed, and contract growers were all hand picked.”
Since Bob’s death, Lynn has visited the company farms, touring dozens of sites, some originals he helped build in the early 1990s. The company today is still “like a large family,” he says.
Mary Ann has stacks of letters sent to her after Bob’s death detailing the extent he went to help farmers. “The bottom line was it was not all about money for Bob,” she says. “We have fabulous growers who needed a hand and are good people. Bob did what it took to get buildings for them. They told us, ‘We were in low point in the farming cycle and Bob signed for us.’ We got letter after letter like that.”
Bob was the visionary, did most of the risk management work, and was chairman of the board at Triumph. Those roles are not easily replaced.
“With Bob being such an influential leader, how we bridge that gap is important,” says Stolt. “We want to continue to grow the family business. Bob operated on the premise that we can always do better. He tested every approach and looked at everything with a critical eye.”
It’s inbred in the culture of Christensen Farms to strive for excellence, says Stolt. “Even though Bob is no longer with us, that will live on. This industry will continue to change. We must be nimble and flexible.” Challenges, he says, include:
1. Diseases such as porcine epidemic diarrhea. Biosecurity has to be tight on farms.
2. Animal activists trying to harm the industry.
3. Decreasing labor pool.
4. Trade issues and pork consumption. “We need to produce a quality, safe pork product that’s in demand.”
5. Regulations that make production more expensive.
6. Age of barns and assets.
Mary Ann and Lynn are focused on retaining Christensen Farms as a family-owned business. “We have a great deal of confidence in the management team to continue to grow and expand the business for future generations,” says Lynn. His two children are too young to be involved. Mary Ann’s children are still getting over the loss of their father.
“It’s hard on the kids,” she says. “They hear the door open and think Dad’s home. Cubby says he misses seeing Dad coming over the hill in his white truck – fast, late, and on his phone.”
She cries. “We’ve had overwhelming support. The saddest thing for me is that Bob isn’t getting to watch it happen. He’s probably up there laughing.” More tears.
“You either get stuck in sad or get stuck in glad,” says Mary Ann. “We are moving forward, but I’d give anything to have him back.”
Write to Mary Ann at email@example.com.
To read, “A Farmer with Big Ideas: How Bob Christensen Changed the Pork Industry,” go to: livingthecountrylife.com/BobC.
To download the 2013 Pork Powerhouses, go to: agriculture.com/livestock/hogs.
The Christensen family includes (from left) Kellen, 11, Mary Ann, Cubby, 14, Laura, Emma, 3, Lynn (Spike), and Joshua, 5.
Bob Christensen 1961-2012