By Roger Dey
BVD 

Byerly set to take reins at Hi Country, with plans to reinvigorate the brand

 

April 10, 2019

Roger Dey

Travis Byerly stands outside the Hi Country Trading Post Wednesday, April 3. Byerly, 43, brings experience in marketing meat products and a desire to support Montana agriculture to Hi Country Snack Foods.

Travis Byerly sees a lot of potential for the future of Hi Country Snack Foods.

"The future of the business looks very promising and exciting," Byerly, who is on the cusp of purchasing the business, told the BVD. "It's a good local manufacturer in a rural community that needs to keep jobs. Our goal is to grow the business, expand the business, keep it headquartered in Lincoln and create more income opportunities in Lincoln and expand on that. To do that we have to grow the business."

Byerly has been working with business founder Jim Johnson on a deal to buy Hi Country for nearly two years. The approval of a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant by the Montana Department of Commerce has helped put the transaction on track to be completed within the next few weeks.

Byerly didn't come into Hi Country as a newcomer to the specialty meat industry. He founded and owned the Montana Fish Company from 2003 to 2017, which began importing fresh seafood directly from Hawaii and later expanded into other meat products. More recently, he has served as director of procurement for Stay Classy Meats in Bozeman, which specializes in premium beef, bison, pork, chicken and elk meat produced by small farms and ranches.


It was his experience and reputation in that field that led him to Hi Country.

"I was approached by the governor's office in the summer of 2017 to see if I could get involved, based on some rumors they were hearing about the plant and the business potentially being sold to an outside company...from out of state and/or potentially being shut down," Byerly said. "They were concerned about that and knew I was already in local food distribution and business."

His experience proved a good match for the business Johnson built.

"As I came out and met with Jim and started talking to him and forming a relationship, we saw there was a fit there. With his background in producing quality jerky and meat snack products and my background with sourcing in raw materials, we (thought we) could make something work," Byerly said.

Johnson will still have a part-time role at Hi Country on the production side of the business, particularly in recipe development. Byerly said Johnson's "unbelievable amount of institutional knowledge," General Manager Steve Fehrs ability to handle the day to day production, and his own sales and marketing experience combine to make a really nice team capable of taking the company to the next level.


Byerly believes his respect for Johnson's knowledge and what he built at Hi Country was one of the reasons they could build a good relationship and put the purchase deal together.

Byerly currently has an equity stake in the company and will become the sole owner once the sale is finalized. His stake in came about in relation to the company's Employee Stock Option Program. At the at the second public hearing on the Community Development Block Grant last May**, Hi Country employees voiced concern over the future of the ESOP, which made them part owners of the company and served as a retirement package. On Dec. 31, Byerly bought out the ESOP as part of the acquisition deal. He said he paid a premium to ensure the employees were well paid for their shares of the company. Although information presented at the May** hearing indicated his wife was also party to the transaction, he clarified she's not involved.

Byerly's vision for the future of Hi Country maintains a local focus on the manufacturing and sourcing of Hi Country's meat products to support the Lincoln economy and the Montana meat industry, while at the same time encompassing a much wider perspective on marketing opportunities.

To realize that, the company is working on deliberate, incremental changes to grow the brand, the product line and the capacity of the existing plant, which he said isn't going anywhere.

"This facility is substantial in size; we've got a lot of growth opportunity here to even reach our capacity in this facility," he said. "So to think about moving it or exiting would be crazy. It would be one thing if we were at 100 percent capacity and had no room to grow. We sit on 20 acres. We can grow."


They've already begun to take advantage of the facility's capacity by bringing the packaging of their spice and seasoning products in house. In the past that had been outsourced to an out-of-state facility. He said they've also created a new spice line for everyday use, packaged in shaker bottles for people looking to liven ups their steaks, hamburgers, ribs or even seafood.

"I think that will be a great brand extension for Hi Country in grocery stores and specialty shops, with seasonings that anyone can use at a good price point," Byerly said.

In terms of Hi Country's signature jerky and meat snacks, Byerly understands they have a loyal following in Montana, and they've begun implementing plans to improve their in-state marketing and their relationships with the companies that carry their product statewide. However, he said to really move the needle on Hi Country's growth, they must develop markets outside Montana.

One example of how they may do that can be found in their line of Pemmican Bites, which has had a mixed reception since its introduction. Byerly pointed out that when marketed traditionally alongside jerky, it may not do well because it's not something people recognize. But he sees how it can be successful if targeted to alternative markets, such as to hikers, fitness enthusiasts, endurance athletes or others who need a snack that combines meat protein with carbohydrates and other nutrients.

"We just (sponsored) an event with an off-road race out of Vegas called the Mint 400," Byerly said. "The feedback was all the drivers in the race, all the teams, were eating (Pemmican) because they're out racing for seven, eight hours in the desert and need energy, but don't have time to stop and eat a burger or something."

Byerly also has a deep appreciation for the Montana beef and ag industries and sees the mutual benefit in promoting both Hi Country products and those industries by sourcing the meats they use in state.

"We have some of the best land and grazing and free range animals in the world in my opinion. We want to be a platform to market and promote that. Jerky's a great way to do it."

Though they are considering new products using bison, elk or pork, the reputation of Montana's beef industry may prove to be the key to wider markets. With consumers starting to take more of an interest in their food's quality, Montana-grown beef could help set Hi Country apart from national brands like Jack Links, Tillamook and Old Trapper, who use traditional commodity markets as a source for their products.

"We're looking to do a line that would be a purely grown, raised, processed, finished in Montana...a product of Montana start to finish, which would support the local ranchers as well," Byerly said

Looking to technology, Byerly said they are also looking at the possibilities of block chain technology, which would allow consumers to identify where they animal in their products came from, where it was raised, and by whom.

"That's down the road, but that's the kind of thing we're looking to do to disrupt the industry, that status quo. Lincoln is the perfect place to do that from," he said.

Although Byerly's focus is on Hi Country's future, he has a goal for the business in a broader economic context.

"I'd like to see the company fill the manufacturing capacity, create a pretty amazing economic opportunity within this small community, show a success story and win, and see this start to be replicated in other small communities. That doesn't mean it must be in jerky, but in other platforms."

** This version corrects the original print version which misstated the month of the second Community Development Block Grant hearing. It was held in May, not October. We apol-ogize for the mistake.

 

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