Relationships and Planning: Keys to Marketing Success
A Texas cattlewoman and professor shares business models based on her personal experiences from teaching and managing a ranch for nearly three decades.
By Maggie Malson
As a marketing professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, Marlene Kahla teaches the concept of relationship building to her students in the Nelson Rusche College of Business. “We emphasize in the classroom and in life the importance of building relationships, and how it relates to marketing,” Kahla says. “There will always be a better animal out there to buy. There will always be people willing to pay more for something. But people buy cattle, and products, from people.”
Kahla takes this philosophy to heart, not only as a teacher, but also as a lifelong cattlewoman, and puts her words into actions. She says, “You don’t develop a relationship just to sell something, but having open, honest relationships are beneficial.”
Kahla, and husband, Buster, own and operate Ka-Wai Ranch in Alto, where they raise seedstock Brahman cattle to sell to commercial and purebred producers. While Marlene’s grown children, Steven and Margo, are developing their own careers in the agriculture industry, they still help with showing, marketing and consulting for the family operation. They both showed breeding heifer projects in 4-H and FFA.
It began with a Brahman
The family’s roots in the cattle business date back 70 years. Kahla remembers riding horses with her dad as a child while he worked cows. They raised what her dad referred to as “range cattle” along the Gulf Coast. Her parents purchased the current ranch land in 1961 to relocate to East Texas. Their land is located about 30 miles from Nacogdoches.
“We ran commercial cattle, but always kept a Brahman bull around,” Kahla says. “One of them was even named ‘Carmen’ after my dad’s middle name. Dad was a member of the American Brahman Breeders Association for years.”
Kahla’s parents’ didn’t live on the ranch, hiring managers to take care of operations during the week. Her dad went on weekends to mow or take care of cows. Kahla and Buster moved to the property in 1979 while working in education. Buster is a retired public school teacher. “We always had cattle; it was just a way of life,” she says.
Another business concept Kahla teaches her students is strategic planning. “We teach developing a marketing plan and matching resources to fit goals,” she says.
She admits, though, that in life and business, sometimes things happen quickly, even before a plan is in place. For example, in 2002, Margo suggested adding more Brahman cattle to the herd. Kahla purchased what she describes as a nice-looking Brahman bull to put with their commercial females.
“We brought him home to East Texas thinking he would only breed our cows,” Kahla explains. “Then I was contacted by some people in Mexico. They knew where the bull had been and knew his genetics. They came to the ranch to see him and made arrangements to buy semen shares.” With that first customer, they established an international market. “It all happened so quickly,” she laughs. “We didn’t have a plan!”
While luck may have been on their side in the beginning, the Kahlas put their business knowledge to use, creating a marketing plan and matching resources to their goals. “For us, that meant selling parts of the ranch that were full of ravines and too steep to use,” she explains. In addition, they built fence, bought more cattle, studied the bloodlines and researched how Brahman cattle could fit in the commercial industry. She reminds others not to overlook the necessary things like vehicle maintenance, or equipment, such as trailers. These items all fit into the overall operation goals.
Ka-Wai Ranch, which was named by Marlene’s dad and Buster, is a combination of Kahla and Marlene’s maiden name, Waits. While coat color varies among the breed, the family breeds gray Brahman, which exhibit a gray hide, black switch, black nose and black lining around eyes to help prevent eye problems. “Breed characteristics we select for include a hump over the shoulder, beautiful dewlap, clean underline and functional sheath,” Kahla says. “Brahman cattle have high fertility rates and must be sound. Good feet are crucial as these cattle are required to travel long distances for food and water.”
The breed’s heat and insect tolerance make it popular in crossbreeding programs. “We sought after a particular bloodline after we learned more about the cattle and were starting our seedstock herd,” Kahla says. “We chose cattle sired by JDH Mr. Manso 360/1. We have several cows out of him and his influence is seen throughout the herd.”
During the last 15 years, the Kahlas have grown their customer base. They started hauling cattle to shows and showing other people’s cattle. “Our daughter was the ‘stick power,” she says. “We always put her on our customers’ cattle even if we have something in the same class. Customers have come to know we put them first. Even now at shows, other ranches will have Margo show for them if they need help.
“We have met so many wonderful people,” Kahla says. “I think in any breed association, anyone would say the best thing about the cattle industry is the people you meet. They are really like family. They may have their disagreements, but they hang in there with each other. They are supportive of us and our children, which means a lot.”
Plan your work and work your plan
Kahla offers additional advice for other ranchers. “You can learn from others, and improve on what you already do,” she says. “It’s always a learning process. People are willing to talk to you once you’ve built a relationship.”
Advertising and promotion
“Develop overall consistency with marketing messages and advertising; keep it simple,” she says. Because the family markets to international customers who purchase live cattle for import and semen shares, they place advertising in the Brahman Journal, which reaches a global audience. They use a business-card ad throughout the year, and then use half- and full-page ads near stock show time to promote more specific genetics. “It’s important for producers to keep a presence in whatever publication goes national and international,” she explains.
“It may be a mundane thought, but always treating everyone like you want to be treated is extremely important,” Kahla says. “You can’t keep everyone happy all of the time, but you do what you can to address issues if a customer shares a problem with their purchase.”
Margo interacts with both domestic and international customers through email and text messages. The family follows up with customers after they have purchased semen or cattle to find out how they are working in the new program. “Many of our customers come back to us and tell us their success stories,” Kahla adds. “They use word of mouth to share about our program.”
Kahla says social media has played a big part in their program. She has met and interacted with many international Brahman groups through Facebook. “You can’t forget about the power of social sharing,” she says. “If you have it, you have to use it. Keep your website updated. You can reach an audience all over the world.”
“A good working relationship with your veterinarian and excellent herd health also help with marketing efforts,” Kahla says. “They are such great resources. They know what they are doing and are there to help. You want to create a reputation of having a good herd health program.”
Breed association involvement
“Go to the breed association meetings,” Kahla emphasizes. “If a local ranch has a field day, attend it. It’s a great way to learn more about a specific operation and keep up with what’s going on in the industry. We were aware of the DNA testing changes for our breed because we had attended our association’s annual meeting. Get involved.”
Kahla reiterates the importance of people and building relationships in the cattle industry. “We have this cattle family, this big international family who support us. They encourage and interact with us,” she says. “They know us like we live around the block, but we don’t. We live around the world.” ❚
“Relationships & Planning” is excerpted from the May 2017 issue of The Cattleman magazine.