Henny Penny Corporation, Eaton, Ohio, was recently named Dayton business Journal’s 2021 Business of the Year. It’s a terrific honor and we take a certain amount of pride in being recognized for the effort our employee-owners put in every day and the accomplishments that result. But it goes deeper than that. We see this as a validation of what we have, for decades, simply called the Henny Penny Culture.
What is that difference? Is there something unique about this 900+ employee-owned manufacturing company that was founded in small-town Ohio and never budged? In this 5-part blog series, we’ll hear from some of the individuals who understand best the hows and the whys behind the things Henny Penny does and believes in that have made our company not only a Midwestern success story, but a highly regarded global brand in the commercial foodservice equipment industry.
What is CSR?
The idea that companies should act responsibly toward society is nothing new. Civil case law has been pounding this point home for centuries. The part where companies initiate and manage the effort on their own in order to create value above and beyond the bottom line is a more recent development, and shows how the corporate landscape has evolved to be more socially conscious.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Dayton Business Journal’s Business of the Year is one of those functions that appears soft around the edges. But at its core is an immovable principle: doing the right thing. There are all kinds of ways to state the proposition, depending on the circumstances or situation. You can do the right thing. You do something the right way. Things either look right and feel right, or they don’t. When something goes wrong, you do what you need to do to make it right. CSR seeks to elevate this principle from a personal to a functional level. By making it part of business as usual, employees, teams and departments get used to CSR as a tool, a guide post—even a guardrail—for decision-making and ideation.
CSR at Henny Penny
“Corporate Social Responsibility is the process of building our values into our operations,” said Jennifer Leen, Director of Well Being at Henny Penny. “Since it’s a process, we have to learn it before we can live it. First, we raise awareness, gather information and develop strategies. Then we communicate, incorporate and coach. Finally, we own it by assuming responsibility and authorship.”
The “it” Leen refers to are any number of core values important to the Henny Penny culture: sustainability, philanthropy, service, Diversity Equality Inclusion (EDI). Each of these areas of focus has a clear benefit to community and society. Each also contains the potential for cascading value within the organization. A focus on sustainability, for instance, yields more efficient use of materials and energy to manufacture products that do the same for our customers in the field. A focus on philanthropy and service helps leverage the efforts of our employee-owners to support the things they believe in. A focus on EDI modalities builds a sense of belonging and an environment of mutual respect that not only improves performance but makes Henny Penny and the surrounding community a more attractive place to work.
“CSR really summarizes what our employee-owners have been living out for decades,” said Lester Wilder, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager. “This culture of doing things the right way, of challenging ourselves to be better, has always bubbled up through the organization from the leadership of long-tenured individuals. But now we have a process that allows that mindset to be actualized within a much larger organization.”
With more than 900 employee-owners and nearly 600,000 square feet under roof, Henny Penny could no longer rely on the tried-and-true method of a handful of workers huddling up to figure out a better way of doing something. The company needed to systematize this bootstrapping into a consistent process that every department could work with and new hires could easily buy into. That is essentially the role CSR plays internally: knitting together employee well-being, customer-partner commitments and environmentally sustainable operations through a data-driven system that makes it more efficient to be better.
Day to day, Wilder says CSR is about integrating social and environmental priorities directly into the company’s business practices. “We’re using technology to make these benefits scalable without devaluing the family-company work ethic. It’s truly a collaborative effort. Improvements have to be improvements. We can’t just eliminate something to be more efficient and then cause headaches, inefficiencies or worse, add risk, somewhere else.”
It’s one thing to engage in sustainable manufacturing practices. It’s another thing to make them part of the process. Henny Penny products have long been designed to lower the cost of operations for our customers. The sustainability piece of CSR helps our company reduce the environmental impact of its operations.
“We are currently investigating a software solution that monitors energy consumption in real time, building by building. Eventually we’ll be able to go line by line,” said Wilder. “When that happens, every decision we make regarding sustainability will be data driven.” Henny Penny also worked with a regional energy provider to make sure all electricity supplied in 2022 and beyond is generated from 100 percent renewable sources.
For Wilder, who has a background in engineering and public administration, CSR means doing the right thing all the time—not just following a new regulation or some fad in the marketplace. “It’s forward thinking. Being employee-owned, we are not at the mercy of short-term demands from shareholders. We are free to make investments in long term priorities. We’re able to do what is in the best interests of this company and its employee-owners. But we also own the responsibility to do it in the right way. Our customers do that, and we need to be where they are.”
Our Partners and CSR
It’s no accident that Henny Penny has been partnering for decades with market leaders like McDonald’s, KFC, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A. “Basically, we share the same sustainability values,” said Paul Parsons, Henny Penny Global Leader for McDonald’s. “If we didn’t, those relationships would have ended long ago.”
Parsons acknowledges that in many ways Henny Penny is a small company playing in a huge field. “We can’t compete with these companies in terms of the global impact of their decision-making. But our brand is an extension of their brand, and that makes us part of the chain. When a customer like McDonald’s reaches out with something important through their suppliers, and then we reach out to our suppliers, big things get done. We help each other drive the focus on important matters. This is vital to the success of all of us in the chain because business is driven by values, and ultimately those held by consumers.”
In the end, Corporate Social Responsibility is about the alignment of purpose in a globally-connected marketplace where consumers simply want to do business with companies and brands that mean something positive for them. In this sense, it is a form of competition, forcing global brands to be more efficient in delivering on these imperatives.
It’s the same at Henny Penny. Our largest customers constantly challenge us to be better. We are constantly connecting with our customers, our suppliers, our industry, and our community to align our purpose as a company. It’s hard work, but it’s what we work for—a sense of belonging and being part of something much bigger than ourselves. It has also changed the arc of our business some years ago and enabled us to emerge in a leadership position.
With the recent addition of a state-of-the-art innovation hub on the Henny Penny campus, the commercial kitchen of the future is likely to be hatched right here in Eaton. The story of how that unfolds will be the fifth and final part of this series.