Jack Link’s Beef Jerky’s marketing script makes it clear that this company “isn’t made up of a bunch of button-up corporate types.” That doesn’t mean there’s no dress code. One of founder John Link’s oldest rules is that a businessman should have a clean white shirt, a clean shave, and follow the Boy Scout law.
What It Does: Produces beef jerky.
In other words, be the exact opposite of the Sasquatch that stars in the company’s TV commercials.
The white-shirt philosophy is something Link—who goes by the nickname Jack—inherited from his father while growing up in Minong, a tiny town in the northwest corner of Wisconsin. Jack’s father and uncles owned, among other businesses, a pair of sprawling general stores that sold nearly everything.
“We were sort of the Wal-Mart of the north woods in those days,” Link says. “We were open seven days a week. We had farm machinery and we had cars and we had appliances and furniture and groceries, plumbing supplies and mufflers.”
Minong’s population swelled with visitors on summer weekends. “We didn’t get a chance to have that many customers all the time,” Link recalls. “So when we had a customer, we learned to close the deal—open and close in the same day.” And follow his mother’s rules: Wear a clean white shirt and wash your hands.
The Link Brothers’ stores were known for their meat, from sides of beef to the 47 different kinds of sausages they sold. When the stores went bankrupt in the early 1980s, Jack Link purchased a vacant meat processing facility and grew it into a deboning business that served Wisconsin and the Chicago area.
One day, Link and his son, Troy, were on a hunting trip and bought some tough beef jerky at a convenience store. It was enough to convince Link that he could do it better and cheaper in his shop.
After some trial and error, Link came up with a product he called “Jack Link’s Original Kippered Beefsteak,” which was more moist and tender than beef jerky. He bought a packaging machine but had no scale at first, so his employees were left to eyeball half-ounces for packaging. Only what looked like half an ounce to them turned out to be closer to one and a half ounces, something Link learned when he finally invested in a scale.
Link took some properly measured half-ounce packages to the 1986 National Candy Wholesalers Convention. It was the first trade show he’d ever attended. He arrived at the convention center wearing a black wool suit and black necktie, carrying $2,000 and four boxes of half-ounce beef jerky samples.
He didn’t know that most of the prime booths had been sold for months or how much money it would cost to get a spot even under a stairway. Link was able to talk his way into the convention and started handing out his snacks, and later brought more aboard a bus trip for convention attendees. By the time he got off the bus, he had orders for all the beef jerky the company had in stock.
Since then, Jack Link’s has become one of the most recognized brands of jerky on supermarket and convenience store shelves. It remains headquartered in Minong, where the population is less than a quarter the size of the company’s 2,500-person work force.
Minong has worked as a base in part because of the fortunate logistics of moving meat snacks: They have a relatively high value per cubic foot, which means you can fit a lot of product on a single truck, cutting down transportation costs. What’s more, the company has been able to find enough skilled people in the region.
“We’ve got a good team,” Link says. “We have careers, not jobs. That’s one of the things you get in a small town.”