An Interview with Tracey Ryder, Co-Founder, Edible Communities
I have had the pleasure of getting to know the team at Niman Ranch—the pioneering meat company with a network of over 740 independent family farmers who treat animals humanely and farm in environmentally sustainable ways with the goal of producing the finest tasting meat in the world—for well over a decade now. Over the years, I have not only come to admire what they do but how they do it—by the thoughtful actions they take today and the considered way they plan for the future. And as a founding board member for the Niman Ranch Next Generation Foundation, which provides scholarships to Niman Ranch farm kids who go to college and then return to farming or other work that revitalizes rural communities, I know a thing or two about how serious they are about the future. That’s what I wanted to talk about with their new general manager, Chris Oliviero, who was appointed when long-time general manager, Jeff Tripician, was promoted to President of the Perdue Premium Meat Company (owner of Niman Ranch since 2015) this spring. I wanted to get a sense of the man who would now be at the helm of Niman Ranch and to see how that change might impact the company or alter its course.
Interviewers are supposed to remain neutral when questioning their subjects, however very early on during our talk, I found myself becoming a fan. His demeanor is steady. His words calm. Not calm in the sense of carefully chosen but more like those belonging to someone who is very clear of his goals, of someone who is thoughtful and focused. I immediately could see why Tripician chose Oliviero to replace him as General Manager. While the two have very different management styles, their goals were clearly aligned.
Oliviero is the kind of leader you want flying the plane when you hit turbulence. He’s the one who would recommend you stay seated with your seatbelt fastened just as a precaution, and he would say it in the most reassuring way and then land the plane safely without a bump. But more than anything else, the way Oliviero struck me was human, real. A down-to-earth, regular guy with a family he adores and a job he loves.
Of course, his resumé is impressive and provides the perfect background for the position he now holds: Oliviero joined Perdue Farms in 2007 after serving as a business consultant for Fortune 100 brands including FedEx, Heinz, and Molson among others. One of his first initiatives at Perdue was to develop and lead the company’s Environmental Stewardship Committee. He also chaired the company’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed clean-up effort. Oliviero was a key leader in growing Perdue’s organic and no antibiotics ever product lines, helping steer industry standards and drive growth.
How will Oliviero impact Niman Ranch? And how will Niman Ranch impact him? Those two questions were at the heart of our conversation.
Ryder: You grew up in Maine, went to Middlebury College, and got a business degree from Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. You’re also a fourth-generation member of the Perdue family. When you were younger, did you think you would grow up and work for Perdue? If not, what changed that? And if so, is what you are doing today what you envisioned back then?
Oliviero: I did not plan to work for the business when I was younger. Frank (my grandfather), was a funny looking guy. Distinct look, like the animal he raised, so I got a lot of jokes about that. But the other piece is when I got into college, I wanted to make sure whatever I did was mine. I didn’t want to come out of college, work at Perdue, and wonder what else was out there. The beauty and advantage of consulting was that I was exposed to so much else. Some of those brands were food, but not all. I lived in Australia for 9 months, working for Toyota, then wanted to come home and work for the family business. I came to Perdue with a full tool kit and a wealth of experience to help move the company forward.
Ryder: What are you most excited about now that you are stepping into the General Manager’s role at Niman Ranch?
Oliviero: I’m excited to be able to work with a really dynamic company and a group of folks who are truly committed to what they do and to meeting the needs of our farmers, raising animals in a way we feel good about.
Ryder: What do you feel will be the most rewarding and most challenging parts of your job in this new role?
Oliviero: Most rewarding part: the culture, the people, and the fact that we’re doing good in the world—a true mission-driven model of success. Niman Ranch has four strong pillars that are so well defined and adhered to: supporting family farmers, sustainable farming, humane animal care, and great taste. True guardrails for the brand.
The greatest challenge: the first 90-180 days for me to get more comfortable with the hog and cattle businesses we are in. I know chicken. I know Perdue. I will be reliant on leveraging the folks at Niman who know the other aspects better than I do. Getting comfortable with my blind spots and being patient. Learning is exciting. I’ve always felt that if you’re comfortable, you’re not pushing yourself enough. So, I’m ready to be uncomfortable for a little while during this transition.
Ryder: You led many of Perdue’s mission-driven priorities including the company’s pioneering environmental sustainability strategy and rolling out the organics and no-antibiotic ever product line, both of which obviously dovetail nicely with Niman’s own priorities Where would you like to lead Niman Ranch’s efforts from here? Do you see those pillars changing?
Oliviero: One thing we can count on are outside forces that will be affecting our agenda. I can’t say what will happen in 5 years, but I know Niman will continue focusing on the four pillars that are in place now. We will continue to grow our focus on rural communities, animal care, and sustainability. But rest assured, no matter where we go, we will continue to lead the way.
Ryder: Given the vastness of the meat industry today what do you see as Niman Ranch’s primary role, given that they are a smaller company in a sea of giants?
Oliviero: We already have impacted this industry. With the support of a lot of advocacy groups, smaller businesses have pushed the industry in ways it was reluctant to go. Niman Ranch is one of those companies proving there is an opportunity for a company to do good in the world and also to meet the actual needs of consumers. We are sensitive not to scale the business beyond what the market will bear. There is an unlimited number of opportunities we are not playing in today that we can look to expand into. Niman Ranch can continue to apply pressure to other businesses—pushing and demonstrating that there is a market out there for higher quality products that preserve the integrity of the land for future generations of farmers and ranchers.
Ryder: Edible Communities has over 15 million readers annually, and we like to say that they are “concerned, connected and savvy.” They tell us they want the planet to be better off tomorrow than it is today. They also tell us they are willing to pay more for a product they can trust—that has a good story behind it and that cares about transparency and traceability. What do you want our readers (meaning consumers) to know about Niman Ranch today? What message would you like to give them?
Oliviero: Your network of readers has brought us to the point we are today: a trusted brand that is purpose-driven and always will be. Edible’s loyal readers have been supporting our farmers, family-owned businesses, and farm-to-table restaurants and chefs for over a decade now. We’re going to keep doing all the things we’ve done and then some. We’re going to continue to grow, evolve, develop, and expand the breadth of the products but also enhance our four pillars. We’re also going to be looking for feedback, which helps keep us on track, so we thank the Edible Community for being a long-time supporter of Niman Ranch.