Owner Profile: Bruce Simon
Bruce Simon, CEO Omaha Steaks on:
Career Expectations in a Family Business, Renaissance Art and Private Travel
Bruce Simon’s first serious negotiation came at the age of 11 over a 35-cent raise. That was just one of many of his experiences on the road to become CEO of Omaha Steaks. Airwaves caught up with this Flexjet Legacy 450 Owner in Sedona, AZ to get to know him a little better.
Airwaves: What’s your earliest memory working at the family business?
Mr. Simon: I used to like to go to the office in the summers when I was maybe 10 years old. I didn’t live that far away, so when it was too cool to go swimming or it was a Monday when the pool was closed, I would ride my bike to my dad’s office. I used to fold boxes and I would get paid 2 cents a box. As soon as I’d earned a buck, I’d pop it in the candy machine for a Butterfinger or a Payday bar and I’d leave.
When I was 11, my dad told me that I could come to the office, but I would ‘really have to work’ he said. And he said he’d pay me $1.65 an hour. Well, I realized I was making well over 100 boxes an hour and I told him I should be paid at least $2 an hour. I told my dad and he told me to get back to work. Well, I was pretty po’d about it, so I told the union steward, Frieda Paderis. She was a German immigrant with a heavy accent, and she told me to sign this card and take it to my poppy. I signed the card and took it to my grandfather and told him that Frieda said I could get $2 an hour now. He tore the card up and paid me $2 and that was that.
I was a member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America for about ten minutes. It was my first serious negotiation
Airwaves: Working in a successful family business comes with lots of expectations. Was there ever a time when you thought you wanted to pursue a different career?
Mr. Simon: Sure, there was a little bit of expectation. My grandfather used to teach me long division long before fourth grade so I could figure yields on finished products. He would insist I calculated everything out four decimal points for good measure. No calculators back then.
I went away to college and eventually ended up a finance major at the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t think I wanted to live in Omaha, Nebraska. I couldn’t think of a way to work for the company without being in Omaha. When I graduated, I received two job offers – one in New York and the other in Philadelphia. My dad offered me $5,000 a year more as assistant plant manager. I worked my way up from there – always in production and operations. That morphed into operations and after a bit I had IT and purchasing.
Airwaves: What’s your favorite part of your job?
Mr. Simon: I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I view my job to get people to work efficiently together to make the best, most wholesome product. Food safety is a huge concern of mine – it always has been a top priority.
Airwaves: Why do you travel privately?
Mr. Simon: It is a time machine. You know when I die and my life passes before my eyes, I want as little time as possible spent at Gate E71. My wife and I have been traveling a lot privately and commercially with our kids in college on both coasts. You guys at Flexjet, you are so awesome. Before my father-in-law passed away, he was very ill and the accommodations you guys made for me, not even knowing what was going on. I called and said how fast can you get some family from Boise to Phoenix. They must have sensed the desperation in my voice.
Airwaves: Why did you choose Flexjet?
Mr. Simon: I think Kenn (Ricci) and Mike (Silvestro) are running one excellent company. Megan (Wolf) is awesome. All of you folks, Danette Jackson and Julie, everybody in Owner Services is fabulous.
I go way back to the Flight Options days – my first share was in a Hawker 800. That was maybe 2002. I have been with you a long time. I get a lot of pressure (to switch providers), living in Omaha. Obviously, I have looked at proposals, but I get such stellar service with you I can’t imagine being with another company.
Airwaves: Why is philanthropy important to you and which causes do you focus on?
Mr. Simon: You always have to give back and you should give back to the community. My wife and I are spending a lot of our philanthropy time and financial commitment on the Joslyn Art Museum.
Another passion is the Friends of Florence Organization, the mission is to raise funds to restore Renaissance art in and around Florence, Italy. Those artists are fascinating on so many levels. They made their own paints – they knew about minerals and bugs to get the pigments they wanted. Their works have endured, over 500 years, it’s our responsibility to see that they survive at least another 500 years.
I’m a nice Jewish guy from West Omaha, so it might seem odd that I’m interested in Catholic art, but this holy trinity piece in the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence is remarkable. It’s the first known expression of perspective ever done. So to the people of the 15th century, it was like looking at HD TV for the first time because everything before that was 2D.
I love doing this because I want to preserve art for future generations.
Airwaves: JJ Simon came to America to escape antisemitism and that led to the creation of this successful company. How do those beginnings shape your decision making as a leader?
Mr. Simon: Yes, there was a lot of religious persecution, but there was also a financial opportunity to come to America. I feel I have a responsibility to the company and to the employees. Here’s what is important to me:
- Make a great product
- Satisfy our customers
- Satisfied result in repeat customers
Also important is a responsibility to make sure our employees live well can put their kids through school, have a roof over their heads – the same things that are important to my wife and me.
Airwaves: Your company was able to trademark the phrase “The Official Sponsor of Tailgating.” How and why did you do that in 2010?
Mr. Simon: In Omaha there are no professional sports teams. We have the Cornhuskers at the University of Nebraska. So, tailgating at Lincoln stadium is a huge deal. At the time, the woman in charge of our marketing was a huge Huskers fan. Nobody else had trademarked it, and for us it was another time to enjoy great Omaha steak products. We’re always looking for another steak holiday.
Airwaves: Many businesses were affected by the recession of 2008, how was your business affected and how did you recover, if you needed to recover.
Mr. Simon: We were very fortunate in ‘08 and ’09. We just plodded along. Profits were ok back then.
We did a marketing study with this brilliant guy and he would study your product, do focus groups about your product and determine the underlying code that motivates people to buy. He only does one product in an industry. We were fortunate to get him. Did you know the code for hospitals is slaughterhouse? Well the code for our product was love. When you are feeding someone it’s an act of love. I think that’s the reason why we weren’t affected. Regardless of the economic circumstances you still love your friends and family.
Airwaves: I see the company is offering single serve, ready-made meals – a fresh take on your traditional offerings. What’s in the future for the company?
Mr. Simon: More of the same really. American’s love convenience and they really love great food. We want to offer plenty of both.
Airwaves: How do you like your steak?
Mr. Simon: I’m a medium rare guy. I prefer to use the grill, in all honesty my wife is much better on the grill than I am. As a matter of fact, she’s a lot better than I am at plenty of things. She prefers well done, but she’s the only one in the family that likes it that way. Our daughters take after me, our youngest wants it as rare as she can get it.