Succession: Hallway Feeds, A Hall Quietly Deserving Of Fame

Lee, Mr. Bob, and Julia Hall | courtesy Hallway Feeds

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“Mr. Bob,” they call him: a nice combination of deference and affection. Both have been amply earned, over the six decades since Robert Hall Jr. established a feed mill that has attained global reach while remaining an unmistakably local, Bluegrass institution. But as befits a man who sleeps in the room where he was born, 94 years ago, the story has roots extending to another era altogether; to a boyhood when Hall–presumably then plain “Master Bob”–saw for himself the difference that good diet could make to livestock.

“I was nine years old when I started showing hogs,” he recalls, seated in the Hallway Feeds offices in Lexington. “So I got it all good with that, and then went to showing cattle. At Louisville we had one of the biggest youth shows in the country: could be 1,500 to 2,000 steers there.”

And if you could win a division there, you would earn a trip to the 4-H Club Congress in Chicago. That was the ultimate, for a farm boy from Scott County.

“That was the big trip I wanted to get, and that's what I got,” he says. “Shows what can happen, with a goal to work for.”

That kind of outlook would ultimately lead Mr. Bob to his industry's highest accolade, induction into the Saddle and Sirloin Club in 2019–a journey he navigated by seeing, in boyhood, how the outside of animal will reflect the quality you put in.

“Well, we'd keep them clean, wash them once a week, brush them every day,” he acknowledges as a first premise. “And you'd get the hair the way you wanted, cover up the bad spots, make it look like a good deal. And it was daily work. You didn't miss a day. But yes, we would feed not just once a day, but three times. We knew that corn would make them fat, barley would keep them soft, bran the same. Oats was good, middle-of-the-road feed. So you mixed it, every feed. Add protein, too, because that gave a better coat and helped them grow.”

Judging nutrition like that, to Mr. Bob, was a matter of both nature and nurture: it was in his blood, and in his upbringing.

“Grandfather and father used to feed a lot of cattle,” he explains. “We've always been a livestock family, more than a crop family. Well, part of it was tobacco, same as everybody. But they fed a lot of steers, 300 or 400, which was a whole lot in this area at that time. And they would feed for export trade, too, which was 1,600-1,800lbs.”

Mr. Bob's son Lee, who today oversees daily operations as Hallway vice-president, remembers his grandfather always with a pipe in his mouth, and burns round his pockets where he'd sometimes place the lit bowl. But the inherited lore of stockmanship would be both explained and advanced by the science that Mr. Bob went away to learn.

After the University of Kentucky, and then military service in Germany, he was invited back by Dr. Wesley Garrigus, Chair of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Kentucky, to supervise its purebred cattle herd. At the time, mid-western colleges of agriculture would exhibit at livestock shows from San Antonio to Denver, hoping to lure the best farm kids to their programs.

“Mr. Bob” Hall Jr. | courtesy of Hallway Feeds

“We had one of the best shepherds in the country,” Mr. Bob recalls. “And the hog department was doing good. But cattle was dragging behind, and Dr. Garrigus wanted to perk it up. It was a recruiting tool to get good ag students to Kentucky. And it worked.”

A picture in the office shows bulls being exhibited at the Chicago International Livestock Exhibition at the old Amphitheater in the stockyard district. Mr. Bob not being one to vaunt his own achievements, it falls to his son to note his role in ensuring the show's survival–after its long Chicago run ended in the early 1970s–through a transfer to Louisville. “When the stockyards closed, they were going to just disband all this,” Lee explains. “He was one of the four or five people that got it moved here and was on the executive committee for the better part of 50 years.”

In 1964 Mr. Bob, by then married to Bonnie, accompanied his father to a mill in Lexington to buy some soybean meal. The owner casually mentioned that the mill was on the market. “And when opportunity knocks,” says Mr. Bob with a chuckle, “you don't forget to open a door.”

During those early years, the Farmer's Feed Mill was oriented to cattle. That was the world Mr. Bob knew, after all, and dairy had long been the ancillary to the local staple of tobacco. But then came the great awakening to the perils of smoking, a terminal squeeze on tobacco, and a radical shift in Kentucky agriculture.

“When the federal government started giving people a huge check to get out of tobacco, the equivalent of 10 years' income, that changed the whole dynamic,” Lee says. “Typically our customer had 60 cows, 100 ewes, 40 sows, and needed somebody to supply their feed because they weren't large enough to do it on their own. But then those folks went out of business, and the ones that stayed got much bigger. They didn't necessarily need us.”

The vacuum would be filled by the other signature industry of the Bluegrass. By the time Mr. Bob decided to build a new facility in Lexington, in 1986, equine feed accounted for at least half the business. Even with that momentum, however, Lee stresses the boldness of the investment his father made then.

“To build this place took foresight and, honestly, nerve,” he says. “Because the agricultural industry was really, really bad in the mid-80s. That's when we were coming off 20 percent interest rates, and Willie Nelson was out doing Farm Aid. I don't know if it was as bad as the Dust Bowl years, but it was not in good shape. And this guy decides, much to everybody's surprise, that this is a good time to build a feed mill. I think most people thought he was crazy, but he was able to find someone to finance it, to see the dream, and we went from there.”

Not that anyone imagined that the mill would become an exclusively equine supplier, as has been the case for the past 20 years or so. Nor could the Halls envisage the enormous range of the changing market they were tapping into locally. Nowadays racehorses from California to Newmarket rely on their expertise. Over the last 25 years, for instance, they have had a licensing agreement with Saracen Horse Feeds in Britain.

Such breadth of exposure itself stimulated specialization: a multi-species program would be harder to control, in terms of contamination and testing. Instead the Halls have sought long-term relationships with people they trust.

“We don't buy corn off the street from a farmer that drives by with a load to sell,” Lee emphasizes. “We know the field it was grown in, and we know the person that planted it, combined it, hauled it here, the whole thing. That's real important, because our suppliers know unequivocally what's expected when they come here.”

Even as all this has happened, however, Hallway has doubled down on its distinctively personal character, not least with the accession of Lee and latterly his sister Julia to operational responsibility.

When Lee came back from college, the business was still in the old mill.

The new Hallway Feeds | courtesy Hallway Feeds

“And most people would probably have looked at those wooden beams and say, 'That doesn't bode real well for a career,'” he reflects. “I do remember how excited I was when Dad wanted to build a new facility, and we had a couple of young guys–including our general manager, who's now worked with us 40 years–who were also excited about what the prospects might be. But we weren't smart or visionary enough to understand that it could be what it has grown into. We've just been extremely blessed.”

Julia, in contrast, only came aboard seven years ago after a career in pet foods. Doing so has helped meet the obvious challenge: how, both among the 40 employees and the clientele, does an expanding business retain the intimacy so vital to independent family firms?

“I think that whether we realized it was there or not, the tenets of the business, the whole culture of what mom and dad started, is in our DNA,” Julia says. “We know it's unique, we know it's special, and we want to honor the foundation they laid for us by placing that into the hearts and mindsets of the people that will follow. It's important to Lee and me that the legacy that we now nurture and steward is passed on to the next set of hands.”

These are not just words: the average tenure of current Hallway employees exceeds 15 years. When consultants in leadership development were brought in, they started out by surveying around half the personnel. They reported the highest “culture score” of any company they had ever worked with.

In modern capitalism, any thriving family concern could easily cash out. But the Halls know that venture capitalists would never preserve what sets their business apart. “Those opportunities present themselves constantly,” Lee admits. “But that's not the legacy we want to leave. We want to continue to be a locally-owned business, hopefully educating the next group of managers on the kind of culture we present to the industry we serve. If we sold this business to some multinational concern, it'd take about six months and this wouldn't even look like the same place. Because everything we do stems back to service and community.”

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation can attest to that claim; likewise the Stable Recovery Program, inspired by friend and client Frank Taylor. But none of this can happen without a quality product to keep the wheels turning.

Sometimes science only confirms what generations past have established by trial and error. During Mr. Bob's career, however, there has obviously been exponential change. “I think Dad would probably admit that the way they were feeding livestock in the 1940s and '50s wasn't a whole lot different than they were feeding at the turn of the century,” Lee observes. “He learned from his father who learned from his own father. So there's been some really transitional time to where we are today. I mean, think about this: Dad has been alive for more than 30 percent of the life of this country! His parents saw tremendous change from the horse and buggy, but his generation has probably seen most change of all. Man on the moon, all that. And animal feeding has gone just as far.

“Now those [older] principles are still very valid. You have energy products, you have vitamin and mineral components, you have protein that you need to optimize for a particular individual at a stage of growth or reproduction or athletic endeavor. But there have been some pretty big leaps in our understanding.”

And one of the things that has stimulated that improvement is precisely the personal connection that remains possible because the takeover predators have been resisted. If you have a relationship with a trainer, for instance, you can exchange experience on how a horse with a given need responds to a given feed.

With trainers, in fact, they don't pitch to feed the whole barn but say: “Just bring us your problem horses.” If they can tackle those, then they have all the credibility in the world for taking care of the rest.

Hallway Feeds | courtesy of Hallway Feeds

“Look, a good horse is always going to be a good horse, and a bad horse is always going to be bad,” Lee says with a shrug. “We can fix some metabolic problems they couldn't before. And what good nutrition really can do, in an athletic situation, is extend performance life. But there's a lot of people that look for the silver bullet. And it's not out there.”

As it is, the Halls are proud to have fueled no fewer than 15 Kentucky Derby winners.

“Dad's very humble,” observes Julia. “But he's had a life well lived and he's well respected. He's known for his selfless generosity, for things that he's passionate about and believes in. He has led a life of doing the right thing because it was the right thing, not to get his name in the paper. And even today, he's still very goal-oriented. He has things that he wants to accomplish. He gets up in the morning with a plan for the day. May not happen overnight, but he has always worked hard to see his dreams come true.”

“It's not just about a payday,” Lee reiterates. “For us, it's making commitment to be here to support the industry. Kentucky's an awful good place to be in the horse business right now, the epicenter for the whole country. So we're proud to be here, proud to be participating, and that's what we want to keep doing.

“Ours is a small business and our customer base takes a lot of pleasure in knowing that they have my number on their cellphone if they need to get in touch. We're not a big oil or chemical or textile company where you've all these layers to go through, and you never get to the decision-makers. Obviously being profitable is important, long term, but crunching the numbers doesn't dictate every decision in the meantime. Like Dad, we're playing a long game.”

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