R.B. Klinkenberg heeded his father's call to take a cut in pay and return to Vermont

by Rosalyn Graham

R.B. Klinkenberg is the chief operating officer of Harrington's of Vermont, the 130-year-old Richmond smoked-meat company that has become his family business.

Twenty years ago, Harrington's of Vermont was owned by West End Brewery of Utica, N.Y., Peter Klinkenberg was its president and general manager, and his son, R.B. Klinkenberg, was a sophomore at Colby College in Maine.

Today Peter and R.B. own Harrington's, R.B. is the chief operating officer, and Peter is enjoying a "semi-retirement."

"That doesn't mean he isn't keenly aware of what's going on in the business," R.B. says. "We have a lot of communication."

It was only a couple of years after Peter purchased the meat processing business from the brewery in 1989 that R.B. joined his father in the Richmond headquarters, yet the idea of a family business and following in his father's footsteps never crossed his mind when he was growing up. "I never expected to work at Harrington's," he says.

Although he did accompany his father occasionally on trips to the company retail stores in Manchester, Vt., and North Conway, N.H., R.B. says he probably didn't spent more than a grand total of five or six days working at the Richmond plant when he was a high school student.

The smoky aroma that permeates the walls of Harrington's offices must have held a powerful attraction for R.B., because in the summer of 1990, when his father came to Boston to invite him to join the business, he made up his mind pretty quickly.

R.B. had graduated from Colby with a degree in economics, heading for Manhattan and a job with Bloomingdale's, then moving to Boston to sell data services for NYNEX. "Peter came down and asked me to join him," R.B. recalls. "He didn't have a position for me. He said, 'If you're interested, you can take a pay cut and come back to Vermont. You haven't been there in nearly a decade.'

"I said, 'Sure.'"

"Getting me involved in the business was a real challenge and risk," R.B. says of his father's action. "From day one, he made it clear that taking over the company was not guaranteed, and I was free to leave if I didn't like what I was doing. It took a couple of years to get things sorted out and figure out where the pieces fit, but I had the benefit of pretty significant management training in two large organizations and I had the acumen I had gathered there."

Harrington's has three distinct divisions: manufacturing, retail and mail order. John Balczuk, data processing manager, and Ellen Cairns, call center manager, confer in the company's call center.

R.B. says he also had the benefit of excellent people within the Harrington's organization, many with long years of service, to teach him. "It was a fantastic experience," he says. "I worked in all aspects of the company." For the first two fall seasons he ran the pick/pack center where customer orders are filled. In the winter he worked with the direct marketing department to get a feel for what was happening on that side. Perhaps most key to his total involvement in the century-old meat processing company was the time he spent with smokemaster Verne Richburg. Under Richburg's tutelage, R.B. learned the process that turns pork from farms in the Midwest and Southeast into the moist, delicious hams that star on holiday tables all over the nation. He also learned how to clean grease traps and wash the floors. "I'm not an expert, but I do know what needs to be done," he says, "and I can step in and lend a hand if need be."

"R.B. really knows how to roll up his sleeves," says Tim Williams, president of Vermont Document Co., whe grew up with him in Shelburne. "If you go there on Saturday morning during the busy season, he's in the warehouse running packages through the scanner and loading trucks. When he was a teenager, he needed money to take my sister, Carolyn, to the prom, so my dad, Larry Williams, gave him a job at Copytek."

Being chief operating officer for Harrington's of Vermont takes a smart generalist with extraordinary attention to detail and a talent for multi-tasking. Harrington's has three operating divisions manufacturing, retail and mail order and each requires a distinct expertise to fit its challenges and opportunities.

First, the business of being the largest meat processing company in Vermont "certainly the largest in the ready-to-eat processing," R.B. says producing upwards of a million pounds of meat a year from the tens of thousands of hams that have made the company famous, to bacon, turkey and duck.

The modest white cottage beside U.S. 2 in Richmond gives little indication of its manufacturing persona, except for the pervasive aroma of smoke. It has a snug appearance, with a little retail shop, corporate offices and a lunchroom; but like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the staircase to the "basement" leads to 35,000 square feet of high-ceilinged industry on two floors, with data processing; a 35-station call center; the manufacturing operation with curing machines, smokers, cold storage and freezers; the pick/pack center with its racks of products and web of conveyor belts; and a loading dock where FedEx and UPS trailers are filled for shipment to all parts of the country.

For much of the year, the facility is relatively quiet with 45 year-round employees; but during the peak period between mid-October and Christmas, that number balloons to about 200. The success of the business depends on an interesting blend of the traditional and the ultra-modern from shoveling a blend of chopped corncobs and maple sawdust into the smokers to extremely sophisticated computer software that ensures that packers are putting the right items into a customer's carton and that the carton is being put on the right truck to arrive at exactly the right moment. The company ships nearly 100,000 packages a year.

With 600 items ranging from meats and cheese to maple syrup, mustard and even marmite (an English yeast spread) in its stores, and about 150 of those in its catalog, Harrington's relies on sophisticated systems to ensure that it meets customer expectations. R.B. credits information systems manager John Balczuk, who has been with the company for more than 22 years, with creating the system, as well as writing virtually every program. This year the company installed a new main frame, the third in its history.

The speed and accuracy of information for the operation are as important to the success of Harrington's as the talents of smokemaster Todd Liberty. "Our sales curve is so tight to Christmas, our season is so compressed, that our ability to react and manage our inventory what we have and what we need is key to fulfilling our customers' needs and not having any excess inventory," R.B. says.

Carol Wisely, the direct marketing manager responsible for marketing in the mail order division, which accounts for about 75 percent of the business, says that R.B. takes very seriously the challenge of crafting a traditional product with a high perceived quality, meeting the changing demands of the USDA, and meeting people's expectations. "That's the magic of Harrington's," she says, "preserving tradition but operating in a way that is absolutely 21st century."

Harrington's carries 600 items, about 150 of which appear in its catalog. Carol Wisely is the direct marketing manager.

"Many things have stayed the same here in the last 20 years in terms of formulations, processes and core competencies our commitment to producing quality hams and smoked meats with the same care and formulation we have used for the last 130 years," says R.B., "but our marketing channels have evolved, from the look and feel of the catalog to the way in which we prospect for new customers. The website is obviously an entirely new market, one we've been engaged in now for seven to eight years. There's a higher level of regulation, too, from both federal and state government, which is not without its challenges. We are a USDA federally inspected meat processing facility."

Looking to the future, R.B. says, "Our primary driving force is to continue to produce the best product we can produce and sell as much as we can." Balczuk has a more fanciful goal, an objective that would boost business dramatically and change the current paradigm for the highly seasonal business. He says he is lobbying for a second Christmas season in June. "Another Thanksgiving would be fine, too," he says.

Peter Klinkenberg (left), the subject of a feature in our magazine 20 years ago this month, stands near a meat smoker with his son, R.B., who now runs the company.

What's Up With Dad?

In our November 1984 issue, we featured R.B.'s dad, Peter Klinkenberg, who was then running Harrington's. Now semi-retired, Peter is still engaged in the business, though not on a day-to-day basis. Day-to-day activities since he retired four years ago have focused on playing a lot of golf including taking part in the New England Senior Amateur in early October in Rhode Island traveling with his wife, Joyce, a retired teacher, and enjoying his three grandchildren.

The elder Klinkenbergs spend about four months a year in Arizona, where they were at our press time.

Originally published in November 2004 Business People-Vermont