Posted: 12/06/2016 By: Amy Lopp
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Russell Maltbie, Director of Sales & Supply Chain at Integrity Foods, a value-added food processor in Athens, to talk about what Maltbie loves to talk about most when he’s not talking about Alabama football: chicken. Maltbie welcomed me to his office at Integrity and expounded on his 20+ year career in the poultry business, an industry he entered into immediately out of college. Maltbie’s role at Integrity is hard to encapsulate into a simple title and it involves a little bit of a lot of things, from scheduling to logistics to growing their market share. He’s donned these various hats for the past 3 ½ years since relocating to Athens and has been a key player in the transition of the company from its former owner, BCK Limited, to the current operation under the leadership of another poultry industry veteran, Integrity Foods CEO Bob Scaramuzzo.
Integrity Foods’ Athens facility, located around the corner from Athens Tech off Old Hull Road, is where you will find Maltbie and the other 200 or so Integrity employees creating products like chicken tenders and boneless wings. Their primary customer base is value chain grocery stores, which often partner with Integrity to produce and package private label chicken products. Maltbie shared that he really enjoys working for a smaller, family-run company like Integrity, which operates much differently than the big corporate guys. At Integrity, the staff is lean and decisions are made quickly and in-house, meaning the operation runs very efficiently and there is little red-tape to wade through. Agility like that is a big advantage in a competitive marketplace, which the poultry business certainly is.
There’s a lot of players in the chicken business, particularly here in Georgia, which comes as no surprise when you realize poultry’s impact. The average American consumes 81.4 pounds of chicken a year and the average global citizen puts away over 25. Broilers, which is the term for chickens raised for meat, are Georgia’s largest agricultural commodity. If Georgia were a country, it would be the 6th largest producer of broilers worldwide. Georgia raises an awful lot of chickens; estimates are at 29 million pounds a day, but we do more than just that, due in large part to a North Georgia businessman named Jesse Jewell. Jewell pioneered the vertical integration that Georgia’s poultry industry thrives on, a model now utilized by major producers the world over. In the early 20th century, Jewell started hatching chickens and supplying the chicks, as well as the necessary feed, to local farmers on credit. At maturity, Jewell would buy the full-grown chickens back at a price that covered the cost of feed and made a little profit for the farmer. Once the concept caught on, he expanded his operations to include processing plants and feed mills so he could control all variables in the process. From there, the company grew exponentially and other producers rushed to adopt the vertically integrated model and get in on the action. Vertical integration allowed chicken to become very cost-effective and that, along with its favorable nutritional content, allowed chicken to overtake beef as America’s favorite protein in the 1990’s, a gap that’s only been widening since.
During our talk, I asked Maltbie what changed the most in the poultry industry in his tenure. He paused before telling me that “people just want different things now”. Essentially what he saw in the chicken business has echoed through the rest of the food industry over the last several decades. More and more consumers are opting for convenience foods. Since the 70’s, the poultry industry has seen a steady evolution of consumer’s demand for additional value-added processing. What started as a preference for chicken parts over whole broilers (can you say chicken wings?) led to where we stand today, with products like fully cooked chicken nuggets or flash frozen boneless breasts making up over 50% of chicken sold in the U.S., compared to less than 10% just a few decades prior. That trend shows no signs of slowing, as consumers continue to opt for convenience foods and producers find ways to raise and process chickens more efficiently. That’s good news for a company like Integrity Foods, with a facility and a mindset that can quickly adapt to changing trends. With seasoned professionals like Russell Maltbie in its senior ranks, Integrity is poised to grow right along with the market.