As WATT celebrates its 90th year of service to readers and advertisers, a lot of change is going on at the publishing company founded by a Scots immigrant in 1917 and in the poultry industry in which he linked his fortunes.
What would the man, born in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, in 1887, and immigrated to the USA in 1907 to follow the printing trade, think? Since the day that J.W. Watt left the composing room of a printing company in the rural, Midwestern town of Mt. Morris, Ill., and acquired Poultry Tribune, “America’s Leading Poultry Farm Magazine,” much has changed. The poultry industry as we know it today did not exist then.
Poultry farming in the early 1900s was a backyard enterprise, with hundreds of thousands of participants. Eggs were produced as a sideline in small flocks on family farms across America, and chicken meat came from surplus or retired laying hens. Turkey meat – that which wasn’t harvested in the wild by hunting – was raised in the farmyard as a seasonal dish. That Mr. Watt grew the circulation of Poultry Tribune from 25,000 when he acquired it to over a half million by the start of World War II is a testament not only to his entrepreneurial skill but how diverse and far-flung the fledgling poultry industry was at its inception.
Fast forward to 2007. The just-completed acquisition by Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. of Gold Kist – the largest poultry company acquisition in history – epitomizes the change that continues to this day. Poultry companies are big and getting bigger – and their number is shrinking. Their businesses are ever more complex, and so is the business of serving their informational needs. Their markets are global, and they have a need for instantaneous information. The challenges facing both industries – poultry and publishing – are more demanding than ever.
Few companies survive for 90 years. What will it take to be successful into 2017 and beyond? An article not long ago in Fortune magazine pointed out the growing challenge that all businesses face: “Across sectors – retailing, brokerage, software, publishing, computers – business models that produced profits for decades have shut down. In most cases managers aren’t sure what the new model will be, but they’re absolutely certain it won’t have a multidecade lifespan.” The article, “Managing In Chaos,” went on to note how the Standard & Poor’s equity ratings of companies had dropped precipitously – in a secular shift – in the past two decades. It reported that in 1985 about 41 percent of companies earned S&P’s least risky ratings, while 35 percent were in the high-risk grouping. By 2006 only 13 percent were highly rated, 73 percent were high risk. Writer Geoffrey Colvin observed, “Managing amid the chaos has become the central problem for companies of every kind. It is a predicament that arises from the very nature of today’s economy. And the solution requires a retraining not of skills but mindsets and assumptions.”
In six reports in this issue, beginning on page 26, eight leading experts talked with WATT editors about the future of the poultry industry. They lay some groundwork for thinking about what may be required for survival in the poultry business into 2017 and beyond.
I never worked for J.W. Watt – he died a quarter century before I joined the company. But I’ve observed the penetrating gaze returned from his portrait that hangs in the company’s boardroom. And in working for the succeeding three generations of his family, I recognize it. It says to me, “I embrace the challenges. Let’s get on with the job.” That’s what survivors are doing in this industry – both in poultry production and publishing.