Florence S. Powers 1917–2012
How do you thank someone who provided the foundation for unbelievable growth, who built the launching pad for a rocket ship to success, who poured her life into this fantastic adventure known as Birko?
Florence Smith Powers was officially the co-founder, former president, CEO and chairman of Birko, but in actuality, she was the very heart and soul of our company.
“Florence had the foresight of looking to the future for Birko,” said Kelly Green, Florence’s granddaughter, Birko’s current chairman and third generation owner. “She was a pioneer for women in a field traditionally dominated by men.
“She represented Birko beautifully. She was elegant and charming and dealt with customers with a high level of integrity,” Kelly said. “Her ethics and her dedication to the company created the culture that Birko has today. It’s a wonderful place to work because of Florence.”
Florence passed away Feb. 8, in Denver after a long illness. She was 94.
Florence’s career story started with her experience at Gump Glass in Utah. “She always said Gump taught her sound fundamentals and the best business practices one could ever learn,” Kelly said. While working for Gump, Florence met Ward Harris Smith at a public dance hall in Ogden, Utah. They married in 1941.
Ward worked for Goodyear Tire and soon got to know the packing plant folks in Ogden. “He had a reputation for being a ‘mad chemist,’” Kelly said. Together with Florence, Ward started Birko in 1953 in their Ogden garage and developed industrial powdered laundry products. Future growth brought them to Denver in the 1960s to serve the Colorado protein industry.
“Ward had a vision of what chemistry could do to add value to the bottom line. That was his innovative mindset and outward thinking,” Kelly said. “Ward and Florence really developed a relationship of trust and integrity with their customers.” They also added value to their customers by showing them ways to make money off their byproducts – tripe washing and hide curing. In fact, one of the first products was Tripe Wash, which is still manufactured in several formulations for use in federally-inspected meat plants.
“My grandparents were able to establish a personal relationship with their customers,” Kelly said. “The integrity of who they were and the quality of products they were producing established the true foundation for Birko.”
Birko’s current CEO, Mark Swanson, said, “Florence and Ward found a niche in creating value added chemistry for the food industry. The culture that they created has accountability to the customer as paramount to everything we do. This culture remains the key to our success.”
As an increased value add to the firm’s customers, Florence launched Birko’s transportation division in order to provide premier customer service and on-time delivery.
Kelly said, “Florence was good at marketing and extremely good with people. She had strong common sense that went back to her Gump Glass days. She always said, ‘If you treat your people right, they’ll perform at the highest level.’
“She was an advocate for treating people right – whether customers, employees or family. Florence was a class act — she was firm and she was fair and employees enjoyed working for her,” Kelly said. Florence knew the name of every single employee as well as their spouse’s name.
“Florence made a personal phone call on Christmas to wish employees a Merry Christmas. She was very family oriented.”
Florence oversaw all three Birko buildings: the first on 56th Street in Commerce City; followed by an 18,000 square foot facility in Westminster, Colo. built in 1980; and the current Henderson facility built in 1993. This is a 65,000 sq. ft. FDA-approved blending facility with an R&D lab. The Class II pathogen lab was added in the last few years. Both a liquid production and powder production facility also are onsite.
Kelly said, “Florence kept everybody on task by setting goals, working with each and every person and making sure the customer was happy.”
Florence changed the tide for women in the meat processing industry and was honored in 1994 by the National Meat Association as Industry Person of the Year. She accepted the NMA’s Supplier of the Century award in 2000 on behalf of Birko.
Although Florence retired in 2001, she continued visiting Birko weekly up until her early 90s. Florence worked closely at Birko with her sister Elizabeth “Betty” Smith and considered Betty her closest confidante. “Betty was by Florence’s side to the end,” Kelly said.
Birko will remain a family owned company, said CEO Mark Swanson. “In times like this we’re proud to be a successful, growing third generation manufacturer. Birko is an all-American story and a key contributor to economic growth. We will continue to grow, create jobs and provide food safety solutions to the world’s largest food processors.”