Growing a business is challenging at the best of times, but during a recession? Unlikely for many, but not bison producer Carmen Creek Gourmet Meats. It has proven that growth during a recession is not only possible, it’s highly attainable with the right business strategy and a good idea.
During a significant downturn in the cattle industry, Kelly Long, who had been working on an 840-acre, 1,000-head bison ranch in 2001, had an idea. Recognizing the bison market was unique, she put a business plan together to sell meat directly from the farm to consumers. By late 2002 Long and two other co-founders (Pieter Springer, owner of the ranch and Dean Andres, executive director of the Alberta Bison Commission) joined forces and launched Carmen Creek in Calgary and sell to markets across Canada, the US and Europe.
The bison business appears to be doing well. Sales are being driven by a growing demand for specialty meats and bison is particularly attractive because it’s nutritionally denser and lower in fat than beef or pork. Exports in 2008 were valued at $11.3 million according to Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada. That’s up from $10.5 million in 2007.
Carmen Creek’s revenue growth over the last five years, as reported by Profit magazine, is 8,418 per cent.
“Pieter is an engineer by trade, but the finance side is where he’s strongest. Kelly has more of a marketing background, and I have sales, marketing and production,” says Dean Andres, one of Carmen Creek’s co-founders. “So we’re a pretty good balance.”
Developing a brand for their products was key. “It was a trend in the protein business at the time, and it’s even stronger today,” says Andres.
Part of the branding strategy was differentiating Carmen Creek from other bison producers, which meant selling an exceptional product directly to the customer.
Its bison products are Canada Grade A, HACCP approved, vegetable-fed, additive and preservative-free, and they are raised by premium producers. “We select and contract our producers for their proven skills in animal husbandry and their stated commitment to producing exceptional quality animals,” says Andres.