Todd Simon started humbly at Omaha Steaks, folding boxes for 2 cents each. He was 10, and although this was his first job at the business his great-great-grandfather J.J. Simon started, it wouldn't be his last.
Today, Simon is a fifth-generation owner, taking a turn with his cousin Bruce to run the business that was handed down to his great-grandfather B.A., grandfather Lester, and, most recently, his father Fred and uncle Alan.
The Simon family's connection to meat traces back to Latvia, where J.J. had a meat business before immigrating to Omaha, Neb., and starting a small custom butcher shop in 1917. Since then, Omaha Steaks has been cutting-edge in the meat business, expanding from the butcher shop to dining cars in luxury trains in the 1940s, catalogs and mail order in the '50s, toll-free customer service in the '70s, and e-commerce via CompuServe in the early '90s.
Though Omaha Steaks has grown to more than 80 retail stores in 27 states, 2,000 employees and $450 million in projected annual revenues, it's still a family business at heart. HuffPost Small Business recently spoke with Todd about continuing the legacy.
What were your earliest memories of the business?
I remember when I was about 7 or 8, riding around the construction site of a new facility on my dad's shoulders. I used to come in with my dad to work on Saturdays. I grew up in the business. I was always around the product, and every family dinner and event evolved into a business conversation.
Was it assumed from a young age that you would take over the business?
There wasn't ever the presumption I was going to run it. I considered other industries in college, but when I graduated, I went to my dad, and he said, "Why don't you give it a try -- start here and if it doesn't work out, do something else." The family let me know, "There's no guarantee you're going to succeed here and end up running the business. But you have the opportunity, and it's yours to lose."
They designed a two-year training program where we joked I was doing every job for 15 minutes to learn the business, thinking at some point an opportunity would present itself and feel right and I'd move into that part of the business. The idea was to make everyone comfortable -- me and the rest of the staff. Non-family members shouldn't feel like they're getting displaced. We were waiting for the natural evolution of the company to make space for me.
What's the best advice your father gave you about running the business?
You can innovate your way to success -- you can't cost-cut your way to success.
What did you learn from your father about being an entrepreneur?
He led more by example than by conversation. He was there working every Saturday, and basically said, You have to be there, work smarter, work harder, be accessible, be present."
My dad was so responsive to customers, to the point that when someone said, "My freezer went out and I lost $800 worth of steaks," he would send the steaks even if it wasn't our fault. His theory was the word of mouth is going to be well worth the cost. We make those types of decisions all the time.
Have you ever had business disagreements? Does it affect your personal relationships?
You mean, within the past week? We've had plenty of times where we had to lock ourselves in a room, scream at each other and come out with a consensus, though once we've talked it through, we are united in our answers. We're a bunch of pragmatic guys. We don't hold a grudge and can hold a healthy discussion about business, but we also know we're bound together by love and family. We take vacations together. We usually talk about work, but, you know.
Do you think what you're doing is close to the vision your great-great-grandfather had for the business?
I don't know what his vision was -- I think he was just trying to put food on table for his family. But the values he espoused were always about integrity and quality. The first page of our operations manual says: "Do the right thing," and all our decisions are guided by that idea of his.
Are your kids interested in taking over the business, and if so, what advice do you have for the sixth generation?
The oldest of the sixth generation is my cousin's daughter, who is going to college in a year and has expressed an interest in the business. I have a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. They're so young, I can't speculate, but honestly, I want whatever they think is the best for their lives. Maybe that's the same my dad wanted for me. I don't have expectations for them to go into the business, but it would be a nice surprise if they did. My advice for them then would be to find your place in the company where you can really make an impact, but wait for the opportunity to come along -- don't force yourself into it -- and do the right thing.
Name: Todd Simon
Company: Omaha Steaks
Location: Omaha, Neb.
2012 Projected Revenue: $450 million
First Butcher Shop
This is a photo from J.J. Simon's first butcher shop. At that time, the company was called Table Supply Meat.
Passing It On
BA Simon, his wife, Ethel, and their son, Lester, comprised the second and third generations of the family meat business.
A Lot of Meat
Lester Simon (left), was Bruce and Todd's grandfather, and the third generation owner of Omaha Steaks.
Fourth and Fifth
Latest photo of the Simon family members: From left to right, Todd, Alan, Stephen (Fred and Alan's brother who passed away from lung cancer), Fred and Bruce.
Omaha Steaks has come a long way from the small custom butcher shop J.J. Simon started.