1924 was an exciting year for the food industry. It’s the year the cheeseburger is rumored to have first appeared on the menu of the Rite Spot in Pasadena, CA. It’s the year Clarence Birdseye developed the first process for quick-freezing food, paving the way for the frozen foods we have today.
And it’s the year Carl Wilhiem Dieckmann received a patent for the first removable blade for a meat grinder knife. That invention, inspired by the disposable razor blades that had just started to replace straight edge razors for shaving, formed the foundation for the Specialty Manufacturers Sales Company, now known as Speco.
Speco is a family business, run today by Craig Hess and his daughters, Jaclyn and Charlee. Dieckmann was Hess’s great-great grandfather. When I asked Craig the secret of their almost-100-year success, he quoted his father, who advised: “Stick with the quality. It will always keep you in the game.”
Here, we’ll explore some of the ways Speco has embodied that principle throughout its history, with the goal of providing insight into how prioritizing quality leads to long-term success.
Pursuing innovation while focusing on strengths
Speco provides solutions in meat grinding, manufacturing spare parts for meat grinders. Their forte is grinder plates and knives.
This area of the industry is particularly fascinating because, despite the massive changes that have occurred almost everywhere else, according to domestic sales manager Paul Faso, “basic cutting edges and the process of meat grinding have pretty much stayed the same.” Most of the change they’ve seen, Faso says, is in how the tools are made — the technology of manufacturing.
Even with processes that have stayed fundamentally the same, Speco has found plenty of ways to innovate. They were the first company to patent and come to market with a bone collector system for ground meats. Hess says: “You used to bite into a hamburger and break a tooth. So, in the 1970s, we started designing equipment to direct hard objects out of the meat and improve ground meat processes.”
They were the first company to patent a double cutting, European (Unger) style system for the American (Enterprise) market. They also patented the free-floating insert blades for emulsifier machines. And they were the first U.S. manufacturer to use an alloy steel with high levels of chromium and carbon, a material they call “Triumph.” Products made with this material last longer than anything else on the market. Consequently, they’re Speco’s best-sellers.
Not all of Speco’s innovations have been quite so dramatic. In addition to their many “firsts,” the company has also focused on consistently improving their basic products to make them more durable, able to support higher throughput, and — crucial for meat processing — generate less heat.
“Instead of duplicating what others are doing,” Faso says, “we try to take one piece and make it better. For example, we’ll drill more holes or change the location of a pin. These small changes make our blades last longer and also help our customers produce a better product.”
These small changes can make a big difference. “Think about a large volume meat grinding plant,” says Hess. “They might run 5 million lbs of product per week. At those rates, even a 1% or 2% increase in efficiency can increase their yield immensely.”
Educating customers about how to get the most out of their products
As with any piece of equipment, the better you take care of your grinder plates and knives, the more you’ll get out of them.
A key aspect of this care is, of course, sharpening. Hess notes that processors take different approaches to sharpening. “Some plants are finicky, which we like,” Hess says. “They’ll sharpen their knives and plates every night, which means they’ll get consistent product every day. At other plants, they sharpen only every week or every month.”
In general, Hess likens sharpening your knives to changing the oil in your car — the more often you do it, the better everything will run. With Speco’s knives, because they use high-quality materials, if you sharpen them regularly, you can use them for years.
Hess also recommends processors take care to implement proper startup procedures — a good idea no matter what type of equipment you’re running. Tools can’t take temperature changes very well, he notes, and you should never run your grinders dry or mix and match knives and plates. “They’re like a pair of scissors — they’ll work best if you keep the two parts together.”
Improving their customers’ products
Speco isn’t satisfied with just making better knives and plates. For their nearly 100-year history, they’ve consistently worked to improve their customers’ products.
As an example, Speco’s customers will often approach them with a scenario where they’re trying to run faster or get a coarser grind. Rather than just pulling something off the shelf, Speco will send them several tools to test the effects of different cuts and designs. If they’re not getting the results they want, they can try different tools.
This is part of the excellent customer service that Speco prides itself on. And, undoubtedly, it’s part of the reason Speco’s products are now found in all 50 states and more than 50 countries around the world. This makes them unique — while many OEMs focus on just one market or making aftermarket parts for their own machines, Speco’s products work with all machines in all parts of the world, from Europe and Japan to South America and the Pacific Rim.
Looking to the past…and the future
Finally, I asked Craig, who’s been in the business for almost 45 years, about some of the biggest changes he’s seen in the industry.
In particular, he noted the speed of business. “Purchase orders used to come in via snail mail. Now we get them over email and fax. Big customers don’t carry inventories anymore — they expect you to have things in stock. That’s why we keep such a large inventory, and 95% of all orders we receive ship the same day.”
He’s also seen a lot of mergers and evolutions of companies and associations, including FPSA. Speco was an early member of the Meat Industry Suppliers Association (MISA), which is now part of FPSA. They were also an early member of the American Meat Institute, now the North American Meat Institute.
Looking forward, he defers to Jaclyn and Charlee, who represent the next generation of not just the company, but also the industry as a whole. “It’s an exciting industry to be in,” Jaclyn says. “I’ve been here for about five years, and I feel like I’m starting to really know and understand all aspects of the industry.”
Charlee finds a lot of appeal in being involved with a family business that has such a rich history. “It’s great to see how recognized the company is around the world,” she says.
Like all industries, the food industry has its challenges. But, as Speco’s story illustrates so well, there’s success to be had as long as you “stick with the quality.”