PORK Perspectives: Genus PIC’s Bill Christianson

PORK Perspectives is a recurring column that provides business and leadership strategy tips from some of the pork industry’s leaders, sharing insights on their business plans and service to the industry. Published on PORK.

“It’s amazing what a difference a few like-minded individuals can make to an industry,” says Bill Christianson, Chief Operating Officer of Genus PIC. 

PIC (known as Pig Improvement Company) was established by a group of pig producers led by Ken Woolley in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom in 1962. The company first ventured out of the UK in 1968, when it established a base in France. Encouraged by its success in Europe, PIC set up businesses in Canada in 1970, Australia, the U.S. and Germany in 1973, and Brazil in 1977. Today it operates in over 30 countries across the globe.

PIC can list a number of achievements over the half-century, starting with its first Camborough gilts, which were delivered in 1964 when the “minimal disease concept” was established. Christianson shared his views of the company, and the industry in general, with Farm Journal’s PORK in the following interview.

Tell us about PIC and its business. 
BC: PIC has been in business for over 55 years. It was founded on the belief that a better pig would make pig farmers’ systems more profitable. Throughout the years, we have been pioneering science to deliver continuous genetic improvement in pig breeding stock – targeting traits that matter to our customers and their businesses –  and provided technical support to help producers make the most of these genetics in line with their goals. We’re part of Genus plc, a UK publicly traded company that focuses on animal breeding and includes ABS, the world’s leading cattle genetics company. 

How does PIC help and work with its customers? 
BC: We start with an understanding of their goals: what they need from genetics within their business and what success looks like for them. We identify the traits they are looking for – for example, improved feed efficiency or improved meat quality – and we work with them on a genetic program to help them succeed. Data underpins that program and helps us select for the traits that our customers want to prioritize. As an example, selection for increased litter size over many years led to lighter birth weights across the industry – a problem contributing to pre-weaning mortality.  By using 10 years of individual piglet birth weight data, we were able to simultaneously improve litter size and increase piglet birth weight – which has ultimately led to better survivability. In recent years we have doubled the size of our elite populations and use our ever-expanding database to help us make increasingly accurate selections, in line with customer goals. 

We also help customers make the most of our genetics within their particular production system. Different customers have different needs and we provide tailored services such as technical support, health assurance advice and transport solutions to help them succeed. In the end our business depends on our customers’ success.

How has the business changed in the 25 years you’ve been with the company?
BC: We’ve more than doubled the output of our genetic package and driven by that have increased the size of our business.  We have been able to harness cutting-edge science to accelerate genetic improvement for our customers. For example, we saw the potential in relationship-based genomics to improve performance across multiple traits simultaneously. We invested in the science and that delivered a major step-change in genetic improvement for customers. 

We have continued to explore new technologies and to take a long-term view. One example is our work with The Roslin Institute, based at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, on genome sequencing. This long-term project is exploring the sequencing of DNA with the aim of identifying and harnessing several billion data points for animal selection, rather than the tens of thousands we use today. We are also exploring the benefits that responsible gene-editing could deliver for producers, consumers and animal well-being. We are working on the development of PRRSv-resistant pigs, which could combat the effects and impact of this devasting disease. It’s a long-term project but it’s very exciting. 

But while the business has grown and evolved with the benefit of cutting-edge science, some things have remained the same. We’ve always explored new ways of doing things and followed our mantra of ‘Never Stop improving’.  

Are you concerned about how regulations will impact gene editing? 
BC: Gene editing within animals is a new area of science and the current regulatory pathway around the world is being shaped. We recognize that and we’re committed to working with regulatory authorities, with the aim of bringing gene-edited products to market to benefit producers, consumers and animal well-being. Throughout our work, we are engaging with producers, packers and downstream players in the food value chain as well as consumer groups to understand what it takes to explore this new science responsibly.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
BC: I love being part of a business in which people are committed to delivering for customers and trying to get a little bit better, every day. We’re a highly-motivated and driven team that moves quickly from ideas to action, determined to succeed and to have fun along the way. I truly enjoy that spirit and energy. And I love working with pigs – have done since a young age.  

Who inspired you?
BC: My family. Growing up in Minnesota, I came from a large litter – I had eight brothers and one sister (I was No. 6). My siblings are successful and driven but still like to have fun. From an industry standpoint, Al Leman was the person who inspired me. I’d been involved in pigs through the family business and I knew him as a vet student at the University of Minnesota, then continued to work with him as he moved to Swine Graphics. I miss Al.

What is your business philosophy?
BC: We have a ‘flywheel’ within PIC, it’s kind of a cycle that that sums up our approach. It starts with an emphasis on robust genetic improvement and moves into realized product differentiation – through genetics that performs for our customers – to deliver a predictable customer experience, so they trust in the value we will deliver for them. That feeds back into further genetic improvement because the cycle never stops. We’re always looking to improve to help our customers succeed. 

What will the business look like 20 years from now?
BC: The pioneering spirit that has driven PIC forward over the last 50+ years is still the moving force within this business and will keep us at the forefront of the pig industry. It’s hard not to get excited about what lies ahead: for example, we’ll continue accelerating genetic improvement to help customers succeed.  I have confidence that we will deliver the potential to wean an additional 10 psy at the commercial level over the next 10 years.  Phenomenal. 

In addition, we’re constantly exploring new traits and new ways of measuring traits that will help our customers and meet consumer needs too. Tenderness is a good example; we’re already selecting directly for tenderness on the basis of a physical measurement we’ve introduced into the program. We’ll continue to explore how we can deliver more value, for example how we can maximize salable yield, quality and eating satisfaction. Eating satisfaction certainly becomes more important in an evolving marketplace. It’s a tremendously exciting time to be in this business and this industry.