Birko’s food safety products are in worldwide demand, as third-generation owner Kelly Green and CEO Mark Swanson hang-on for the ride
Birko Corp. was born in a garage in Ogden, Utah, in 1953, and relocated to Colorado in 1979. It's one of the biggest names in food safety worldwide, and makes more than 250 different products for the food and beverage industries today.
Kelly Green is the granddaughter of the founders, Ward and Florence Smith, and Birko's third-generation owner and chairman of the board. (She's also one of the few executives who puts her email address on the front page of her company's website.)
Mark Swanson, Birko's CEO since 2008, met Green at Colorado State University's Executive MBA program in the early 2000s. Under his guidance, the company has boomed, with the staff doubling from 50 to 100 employees in the past five years.
A good deal of Birko's recent growth can be attributed to new products. A prime example is Beefxide, which helps reduce and eliminate pathogens on beef carcasses. It's been on the market since 2011.
"It's a product we developed in-house," says Swanson. "It's growing like gangbusters." Roughly 25 percent of all North American beef is treated with Beefxide, but the product market extends beyond one continent, he adds. Japan recently approved its use, where it's on "a really short list" of similar products.
The protein business represents nearly half of Birko's revenue, but the company's market spans not just beef, pork, and poultry producers, but processing companies, produce growers, and breweries.
The last of the three has grown to about 5 percent of Birko's sales since the company entered the market in 2003. Its proprietary two-step keg cleaning process is quickly emerging as an industry standard -- as many as 20 percent of craft breweries in the U.S. are currently using the process.
"As fast as that market is growing in the U.S., we aren't looking internationally," says Swanson, noting that a new domestic craft brewery opens its doors every day. "We're having a blast keeping up with it."
Colorado is ground zero for the boom in craft brewing, notes Green. "Colorado has been huge for us in the craft-brewing sector," says Green. Such notable in-state breweries as New Belgium, Odell, Great Divide, Avery, and Oskar Blues are Birko customers.
About 30 of Birko's work in production, and the lion's share of manufacturing is in Colorado. "About 75 percent of our production volume is right here in Denver," says Swanson.
Beyond Beefxide and brewing, Birko is looking forward to a busy 2014. "We have about three or four products that are in the queue," Swanson says.
By midyear, the company will release new, water-efficient cabinets from its Chad Equipment subsidiary, acquired in 2011. Cabinets "are big car washes for carcasses," explains Swanson. "They use a lot of water and water is at a premium."
The new cabinets will use roughly 30 percent less water than their predecessors. Since these are typically the primary use of water at most meat-processing facilities, Birko's innovation "is an enormous benefit to our customers," says Swanson, citing benefits to the bottom line and the environment.
Challenges: Educating the market about changes and innovations in food safety. Case in point: The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 "is all-encompassing," says Swanson. "It's from soup to nuts."
Opportunities: The concept of the Birko Food Safety Alliance, by which new Birko technologies could be scientifically vetted by CSU and tested at JBS USA's meat-processing facilities in Greeley and elsewhere.
"We have talked extensively with CSU and JBS on a food safety program," says Swanson. "No matter how good the ideas are, we need to make sure they are cost-effective and easy to manufacture. That helps everybody."
Needs: Qualified labor. "As we continue to grow, we're hiring left and right," says Green. "We need to get the right people in the right seat at the right time." She says the company will hire about 25 new employees in 2014.