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Family ties strengthen a plant and a community

December 07, 2017

What is the relationship between a town, a manufacturing facility and a family? For Chris Houfek, they are inseparably linked.

As export coordinator for Cargill’s beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, Chris (center in the photo above) ensures that every package of meat shipped from his facility to the international market meets the specifications and quality standards Cargill’s customers expect. His job, he says, is “to make sure we’re doing everything we say we’re going to do, and doing it right.” When a customer anywhere in the world opens a box of Schuyler beef, “it should tell a story.”

Chris has been working at the plant for eight years now, and his job is about more than just doing good work and earning a living; it’s also a family tradition. In fact, his is the same job his mother, Penny Houfek (left), held at the plant before him. She trained him how to do it right.

The mother and son are just two links in the chain that bind together this beef plant and a dynamic Midwestern community.

Family roots

Chris was born and raised in Schuyler. His mother and father, Penny and Stewart “Bud” Houfek (right), worked for more than 40 years—their entire careers—at the beef plant here, starting in entry-level positions and working their way up. When they joined the plant, it was owned by the Spencer Food Company. Cargill acquired the facility in 1987.

Bud started working at the plant in 1969, and he did a little bit of everything. He worked on the harvesting side, worked the lines, and served in all kinds of processing roles before moving on to quality control.

When Penny started in 1976, she also worked the lines and tables. She became a supervisor, then a quality assurance specialist. Then she moved into the position of export coordinator. As retirement approached, she was buoyed by the fact that her son would take over the role after her.

“Ever since he came home to Cargill, I said, ‘I hope one day you will take over my job when I retire,’” she says.

She got her wish in 2016, when she decided it was time for a new chapter. Fortunately for her, Chris was ready to take the baton, having worked at the plant in various roles since moving back to Schuyler in 2008. He had moved all over the country working in the retail sector after college, but a desire to be closer to family brought him and his wife back home.  

“It was pretty exciting to have Chris side by side with me, teaching him all the things I knew,” Penny says. “We had our moments, that’s for sure. But he was a fast learner. He’s excited to be doing it on his own now, and I’m hearing from everyone that he does an awesome job.”

Chris attributes his success to excellent training. “My mom knows this job in and out,” he says.

Now that Penny and Bud are retired, they still live in Schuyler with their two dogs. They enjoy traveling and staying active in their community. Bud still works part time—about two days a week—as a contractor for Cargill, making runs to pick up products the plant needs from regional vendors. The part-time job gives Bud something to do, and he enjoys the camaraderie with Cargill employees he called colleagues for decades. “I plan on doing it for a while yet,” he says.

They are proud that Chris is following in their footsteps. “It makes me feel really good to know he’s carrying on our family’s presence in the plant,” Penny says.

Bud agrees: “It’s rewarding to know that to see that he has stepped into an important role. He has taken on more responsibility than I ever did at the plant.”

Chris emphasizes that his family is not unique in this regard. “There are numerous examples of people who grew up here and worked here, and their kids grew up here and work here at the plant now. And they are working their way up even further than their parents did.”

Small town, big growth

For decades now, Cargill has processed and packaged all types of beef products in Schuyler for export to the world. It would be an understatement to say that Cargill’s presence is important in this community. That has never been clearer than when the plant—which employs nearly 2,200 people in a town of 6,500 and a county that is home to fewer than 11,000—had to halt exports during a scare of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called “mad cow disease,” in 2003.

Those were trying times. Because exports were down, Penny had to return to quality assurance and many others feared for their jobs. “The way that affected the whole town was really the start of everyone realizing the importance of exporting and international trade to this facility, the people working here, and the people living here,” Penny recalls.

Like his mom, Chris understands how critical global trade is to the local community. “Exporting is so important to this facility and this town. We have so many people working here because of it, and they are all contributing to the local economy. We all depend on it,” he says.   

The plant survived, and continued to grow. Cargill is currently investing $8.5 million in upgrades and replacement equipment for the facility, and the annual payroll is more than $100 million. Through the years, the Houfeks have witnessed many changes at the plant. For one thing, working here is safer and less grueling than it used to be.

“The work used to be very, very hard,” Bud says. “We didn’t have all the automated equipment. Everything was pretty much done by hand. It was manual labor and you saw a lot of injuries. It’s easier and a lot safer now.”