WOOSTER, Ohio — When he talked of starting a branded beef program more than 30 years ago, there were very few who thought he could do it.
Louis M. “Mick” Colvin had plenty of reason to doubt his own idea, including a lengthy rejection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the first week of business.
But Colvin, 71, the co-founder of Certified Angus Beef, pushed for what he believed could give cattlemen and the Angus breed a new market.
Thirty-two years later, it’s clear CAB — now a multimillion-dollar business in roughly 50 international destinations — has its place.
Colvin, who still lives on his ranch in West Salem, Ohio, retired as executive director of CAB in 1999, and remained a consultant until 2004. He may have stepped aside from the business, but remains keenly aware of how it all began, and where he sees its future.
Colvin grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, but he didn’t like working with dairy cows. The state took his family’s farm through eminent domain, to build a dam on the Shawnee Creek, and he quickly evolved as a breeder of high-class beef.
Along the way, he developed many lifelong friends, including Fred Johnson, who owned Summitcrest Farms in Summitville, Ohio, and helped co-found Certified Angus Beef. Johnson died in September of 2007 from complications of cancer.
Colvin said when CAB was first formed in 1978, Johnson received a letter back from the assistant secretary of agriculture, with “a thousand different reasons why CAB wouldn’t start.”
But the two already had sold a pound of the product to an IGA store in Columbus, and its popularity convinced the store to continue selling it, whether it could be certified or not. Today, the product is certified by some of the strictest standards in the industry, and sells about 1 million pounds in three hours — an amount that took 22 months to sell in 1978.
Colvin admits there were times when he thought of quitting the program, but he’s very glad he didn’t.
“I’m a person that’s motivated by challenge, I guess. I had a lot of challenges,” he said. “Thankfully, we kept on going.”
In order to pass as CAB, meat must first be Angus, which is generally determined by the color and other physical traits. But the real inspection is with the meat itself, which must pass 10 standards beyond the typical USDA requirements.
They include “superior marbling,” cattle only raised for beef (as opposed to breeding cattle), consistent sizing and fresh beef appearance and tenderness.
Brent Eicher, current senior vice president, said only the top few percent of Angus cattle are sold under the brand. The other 80 percent end up in other markets.
Eicher has been with the company for 23 years and has no doubt why it’s persisted.
“They (the founders) knew that the Angus breed produced genetically superior beef quality products,” Eicher said. “They felt like if they started a program that could market a high quality, selective beef product from Angus cattle, that would create more demand for their Angus cattle.”
And it certainly has, with more than 750 million pounds of CAB beef to be marketed this year alone.
Eicher said the falling economy has definitely impacted the food service sector — beef sold to restaurants and other markets where it is served cooked.
But by the same token, retail sales increased by about 4 percent last year, and sales this year are up about 20 percent — likely results of consumers who want to cook their own meals and save, Eicher figures.
CAB employs about 70 in its Wooster headquarters, and also has staff stationed in other offices and other countries. But its mission — printed boldly in the front office — is straightforward: Increase demand for registered Angus cattle.
“We work for them to grow demand for their breeding stock,” simple as that, Eicher said.
When a producer’s product meets the quality standards, the packer often awards him a premium. Eicher estimates over the past five years, more than $250 million in producer premiums were paid.
Colvin and Eicher both see a positive future for CAB, as long as its staff remains committed to its mission, and consumer demand for quality beef stays strong.
“People make the company,” Colvin said, calling the decision to hire Eicher a good one.
Colvin said CAB must continue to market beef beyond what meat packers alone can do, and emphasize its importance in the food chain.
“To me, beef is still one of the healthiest proteins that any of us can eat,” he said.