If you were drafting a list of job qualifications to fill the CEO position at the National Pork Board, it might include:
A college degree, of course;
A farm background and/or experience working in agriculture;
Experience in Washington, DC;
Business management experience, preferably with an MBA degree;
Commodity/association work; and
A full understanding of commodity checkoff programs.
A legal background or law degree would be a plus, as would a working knowledge of animal agriculture and the challenges it faces.
During the summer-long candidate screening and interviewing process, the checkmarks next to Chris Novak's name grew. After a meeting with the full Pork Board, Novak got the job. On Oct. 1, he took over the reins and began settling in.
Born and raised on a 100-acre, diversified crop and livestock farm near Marion, IA, young Novak was active in 4-H and FFA, serving as state FFA secretary and president.
After high school, his career began at Iowa State University (ISU), where he received a degree in public service and administration in agriculture with plans of pursuing a boyhood dream of becoming a lawyer. His final months at Iowa State coincided with an internship with U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, which led to a full-time staff position in charge of agricultural issues.
His tenure with the senator lasted 3½ years. In 1990, he joined the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) as a lobbyist in the Washington, DC office. A year and a half later, then-NPPC CEO Russ Sanders asked him to manage the council's new environmental programs, so Novak and his wife, Julie, moved back to Iowa and started their family.
Familiar, But Different
“Working as director of environmental programs was a great opportunity to serve the pork industry,” he remembers. “Creating new programs that helped producers better manage our environmental challenges was a rewarding experience that I hope had long-term benefits for producers.”
It was during this period that Novak joined National Hog Farmer and other industry partners in the launch of the Environmental Stewards of the Pork Industry awards program.
Still, law school beckoned, so Novak left the council in 1995 to attend the University of Iowa.
After law school, Novak joined the American Soybean Association as special assistant to CEO Steve Censky in St. Louis, followed by a stint with Syngenta, where he handled biotechnology and public relations from 2001-2004. During this period, Novak completed Purdue University's agriculture college executive MBA coursework, focusing on food and agribusiness.
In 2004, Novak learned that the Indiana Soybean Board (ISB) was searching for an executive director — a position he later accepted. In this role, Novak led a strategic planning initiative that created a partnership between the state's grain and livestock organizations.
“We had a 23% increase in pork production in three years in Indiana, despite the many challenges facing the livestock industry,” Novak explains.
Novak's return to National Pork Board headquarters in West Des Moines struck some familiar chords.
“There's a great deal of familiarity in the commitment to deal with issues proactively,” he says. “Traditionally, the way the pork industry has addressed those issues is to:
“Invest in research that helps examine a problem and identify alternatives and solutions to solve it; and
“Connect this research with the education, outreach and communication efforts that will help producers understand the importance and relevance of the coming changes.
“The other thing that feels very familiar — and yet I would say we are doing it at a much higher level today — is recognizing the need to work across the (pork) chain, from genetics, through production, the packing and retail industries, and on to the consumer. So many of the issues we are facing that will limit our opportunity to increase pork production and/or increase pork demand are beyond the farm gate,” he continues.
Novak cites recent initiatives in updating and developing the Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA+) and the Transport Quality Assurance programs as examples of the industry's proactive approach to addressing current issues.
“The commitment to making sure we are helping pork producers adjust and adapt to changes in the industry is still here, and it is one of the things that is most exciting about coming back to the pork industry. What we have to do as a checkoff organization serving pork producers across the country is to ensure that those investors are getting a value for the dollars they are putting in,” he continues. “Certainly, that means from the largest to the smallest, we have an obligation to try to ensure that there is something here that helps them be more profitable.
“Our international export programs are paying dividends back to the farmer-investors in the form of growing pork exports. Domestically, our goal is to increase consumer spending on pork and pork products, a challenge in today's economy, but we are very excited about new programs that are helping grow retail pork demand.
“Through research and science and technology investments, we are also making certain that there are tools available for all pork producers to deal with disease issues, as well as the high feed prices. Specifically, the Swine Nutritional Efficiency Consortium is aimed at helping producers manage higher input costs and increase and enhance feed conversion,” he says.
Novak also acknowledges the general public's sensitivity to animal care and handling issues, such as those aired in a recent People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) video footage showing unacceptable and abusive handling.
“If we're not addressing these things together, as an industry family, if producers don't understand the importance of ensuring that there are good animal husbandry and handling practices, the result will be that consumers and the government will speak out and force changes on the industry. It's about training. It's about education. But in some cases, it's about a cultural shift within an organization so that everyone understands what is acceptable,” Novak says.
Global and domestic pork demand also present challenges and opportunities, notes the new CEO. “Certainly, in the developing economies we've seen in China, India and so much of Southeast Asia, more meat on the plate is a long-term trend that will continue to create opportunities for the pork industry.”
Novak's 13-year hiatus from the pork industry has broadened his perspective while reinforcing the tenets common to all farmer-based organizations — “regardless of size, there is a benefit to working as a community, working together,” he reinforces.
He recognizes a greater involvement of large integrators in Pork Checkoff activities, and he welcomes it. “It is absolutely critical that these folks are at the table, and I am pleased to see them engaged and involved. It makes business sense for them to say: ‘we're investing significant checkoff dollars and we want to ensure that investment pays us a dividend.’ And they bring a great deal of expertise to the table that can help shape and improve the programs that we provide to the industry,” he says. “As an organization, we will remain committed to bringing producers of all sizes together to find a consensus on programs that can serve the entire industry.”
In like fashion, Novak sees a need and an opportunity to bring contract producers and members of the industry's workforce into the Pork Checkoff fold. These “non-owners” clearly have a vested interest in the industry, and they impact such vital areas as food safety and quality, animal well-being and environmental management, he says.
Novak recognizes the first six months on the job will be spent getting “up to speed” on a broad array of checkoff-related programs.
“First, what's absolutely critical in this period is outreach to as many people in the industry as possible — pork producers and allied industries — to ensure that I'm getting broad input in terms of what people think of our programs, services and delivery, and how we can improve them,” he says.
“Second, we must make an effort to take a strategic look at the changes coming into this industry. That is absolutely vital.”
Novak understands this is a challenging time for pork producers, but sees great promise ahead. “This is truly a farmer-owned, farmer-driven organization, and that is one of the things that has made it so strong,” he concludes. “I look forward to building on these great traditions.”