March Newsletter Feature:

So You Want to Be a Plant Manager?
Advice From the Pros:


How do we fill the major gap in trained facility leaders? 


We create the path. This must include intensive process training, leadership coaching and clearly defined expectations, accountability complete with self-assessing metrics. There’s not much in the way of a comprehensive program like that today – at least not one geared towards small meat processors. This is a topic that NMPAN, AAMP, NC Choices and many other organizations are considering, and we understand the issue is urgent. Much more on that to come.


All that said, I also get a ton of questions from plant team members, butchers and other operators in the industry who want to know how to expand their skill sets and grow upwards in an organization. Aside from the fact that many small plants may not have clear personnel development structures, a common challenge among those inquiring about career growth is that they feel like they need a general set of bearings, mentorship or just a place to go for advice. The most common of these questions is ‘what advice do you have for me if I want to get into plant management?’.


This month, I reached out to several NMPAN members who are, or have been, plant managers and asked them a series of short questions about advice they’d give to someone who’s looking to advance into leadership – and what they’d do differently. I was lucky enough to bend the ear of the following folks:


  •  Dr. Denise Perry, Lorentz Meats
  • Arion Thiboumery, PhD
  • Mike Smucker, Smucker’s Meats
  • Kate Reed, Cream Co.
  • Mike Lorentz, Lorentz Meats and Vermont Packinghouse

Dr. Denise Perry, Plant Operations

Q. What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into plant management?

A. There is no “routine” in plant management, no matter how hard one tries.  Even if the schedule is somewhat routine, the problems, surprises, curveballs make every day a new day.  If you like variety, surprises, challenges, unique problem-solving and an “every day is a new day” atmosphere, then plant manager MIGHT be the right position for you.  If you need predictability, routine and do not like surprises, then it is definitely not the career to chase.


Q. What would you go back and tell your younger self about being a plant manager?  


A. Those business courses you ignored and had no interest in because you were meant to be a “scientist” sure would come in handy right now. Don’t be so hard on yourself.


Q. If someone wants to become a plant manager, what further education should they seek? 


A. The following are some top skills/understanding that I use on a daily basis, some I am stronger in than others:  Clear communication (active listening, written and verbal), honesty, integrity, people skills, motivating others, business, operations, regulation.  Take that list, determine your weaknesses within each and that is where you should focus your continued education, be it in a classroom or finding a mentor within the industry.


Q. What’s a day in the life of a plant manager look like?


A. Recently, Mike Lorentz told me about a Mike Tyson quote that I have never heard.  Coincidentally, the day before he told me this quote, I was trying to think of a quote to summarize my answer to this question in one simple statement.


“Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”  Every day I go into work with a “plant manager” plan to tighten up processes, training, setting expectations and holding people accountable so that we can meet business goals and almost every day, at least once, I get punched in the mouth. 


I’m sure plant manager looks different for each organization at every different size. For me, it is a mix of various internal and external communications that revolve around any of the following: continuous improvement, root cause analysis, growth and development, efficiency improvements and of course, leading the conversations on whatever has “punched us in the mouth.” 


Q. How should plant managers’ success be measured?

A. So much information exists on how a plant manager should measure success of the facility, but so little out there to help guide a plant manager on if they are successful. Every time I started reflecting on what I personally define as success, I drifted into “but the board doesn’t care about that if the facility ‘success’ numbers do not agree.”  Personal definitions of being a successful human and leader may be in conflict with what the Plant Manager feels they are being judged on for success and I believe the reason for that is because despite all the of the need for the warm and fuzzy human components, the business still needs to make money. 

Ultimately, a plant manager’s success should be measured on if they are motivating a team with mutual trust, transparency, respect and clear communication (which includes active listening) towards the common business goals.


Arion Thiboumery, PhD

“Being a plant manager asks you to be “just good enough” at a lot of things in order to keep the plant running. Beyond just getting meat out the door, you have to keep the staff happy and well organized, keep the building and machines running, keep the USDA happy, and all the little things that come up everyday. You can drive yourself crazy trying to do it all. No matter how much you give, there is always more to do. One day, when I’m a better manager, I’ll probably be better at delegating without micro-managing, hiring maintenance/construction contractors even though they cost more, and cultivating wider circle of advisors / thinking partners to call when I don’t know what to do. The problem with doing it all is that it becomes all that you do.”


Mike Smucker, Owner, Smucker's Meats


Being responsible for the big picture as well as the day to operations has been and interesting experience.  I think the two most important aspects of a plant manager are a desire to solve problems and conflict resolution. Problem solving requires a can do and optimistic approach to work and the job that needs to be done whatever it is. Working with people will always necessitate the need to also resolve conflict but it also has to be done in a way that does not contribute to the conflict nor ignore it. 


These two things can sound like one and the same in that there is an aspect of fixing problems but I think they are distinct in that solving general problems requires fixing something physical or fixing a system (how something is done). Conflict resolution cannot be applied with the aim to “fix” people because it never works that way. Conflict resolution is more listening with an aim to understand both sides and presenting the opposing side in and understandable way.


If I could go back in time I would probably spend even more time learning conflict resolution and applying it sooner.  Not that it would have changed the outcomes of many circumstances but I would be better at it than I am today because I would have practiced it more. 


Management is always challenging because there is a constant and elusive challenge to keep people on both sides happy. Direct reports and upper management are always trying to get you on their side and you need to be on both but still recognize that your position is one that must delicately straddle both.  Confidentiality is an important attribute that the best manager will guard well and understand that there is a loneliness in that space but it is needed despite any recognition of it, ever.


A successful manager will have the respect of the people they work for as well as the one’s who report to them.  I am not sure how this can be measured aside from surveys that surrounding co-workers can speak into.



Kate Reed, Senior Operations Manager -
Systems and Compliance, Cream Co.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into plant management?

My advice would be to be a “yes man” in your early days of your career. Many people get into a job and think if you are assigned more responsibility, you should then ask to be compensated for that before you take it on. I disagree and that is why I believe I have been able to reach my goals much faster than anticipated. The job I have now would have been where I thought I may be at 40 years old and here I am at 27 years old having obtained it. So to dive deeper into what it means to be a “yes man.” Don’t be scared of additional responsibility with no compensation initially. Prove you can do the work, prove you can make a difference, and then usually (especially at a great company) the compensation will come to you naturally. 

I have a food science degree and started in food safety. I then took on Human Safety as well, started helping with maintenance projects, and suddenly I was being offered a Senior Operational Role where I manage many departments. Of course in being a “yes man” you have to also have certain boundaries, but overall put in the work early to gain that respect and you’ll move up much faster.

What would you go back and tell your younger self about being a plant manager?

To be honest, I still feel like I am my younger self. If I was giving myself advice right as I went into my career it would likely mostly be about professionalism. There are a couple golden rules I follow now. 

  • Coworkers can be friends, but there should be limitations to that friendship. When you get very close with someone and then reporting structures change and hard decisions need to be made, you can be in a very tough situation

  • Learn how to separate yourself from conversations that could be compromising to your career or reputation. Don’t overshare about your personal life.

  • Always take your entire team of direct reports out together. Never do a 1:1 outside of work with a direct report.

  • You don’t ever date coworkers.

If someone wants to become a plant manager, what further education should they seek ?

I suggest that if you see an opportunity to attend a conference, webinar, class with a certification, or any other events that are run by those already in industry, that will be helpful for you in how to continue to create success in your own role and also build connections for you. Sometimes you won’t have the answers, but having someone else you can call that might is very beneficial. 

What’s a day in the life of a plant manager look like?

I don’t think there is one answer to this because you are in an ever-changing environment as a plant manager most times. You have to be able to roll with the punches and stay positive even when it seems like things are out of control. Honestly, I would not expect any type of consistency in responsibility, hours worked, or people.

How should plant managers’ success be measured?

Two ways, 1 more data driven and another based on emotional intelligence. Data driven results would be like how many orders can your team fill in an 8 hour shift with 100% accuracy for example and then you try to improve on that or change metrics and hit new goals. And then emotional intelligence in a sense of how you’re able to work with people, direct your team, respond to constructive feedback, etc.

Final Thoughts

Being a plant manager is not for the faint hearted, but one thing that you can typically depend on is having control of your own destiny. If you see something that isn’t working, you can be the one the initiates, designs, and rolls out the change that not only makes your life easier, but everyone else’s around you and that is priceless.

Mike Lorentz, Lorentz Meats and Vermont Packinghouse

Q. What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into plant management?

Brace yourself for a challenge.  With any hard job it can be very rewarding when it all works

Q. What would you go back and tell your younger self about being a plant manager?

People skills are as important as technical skills. 

Q. If someone wants to become a plant manager, what further education should they seek?

You don’t need a degree, but it can help.  General business classes that lay the foundation of the financial and analytic challenges you will face are a great background, but most importantly is to have a curiosity and willingness to learn new things.

Q. What’s a day in the life of a plant manager look like?

Solve the problems that have happened, anticipate the problems that will happen and avoids the problems that could happen.

Q. How should plant managers’ success be measured?

At the end of the day the owners of the company define success, but a good reference is to ask the question “did we all want to come to work this morning and are we all leaving this afternoon knowing if we did a good job?”

There you go, folks. Straight from the horses’ mouths; these are some fantastic pointers. Take it from someone who spent years trying to figure out how to beat the Peter Principle with brute force alone; you can take all of this advice to the bank. 

David Zarling

Program Manager, NMPAN

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