Sanimax: A Family Story for 75 Years

By Tina Caparella

Like many rendering companies, Sanimax started from very little, but with hard work, tenacity, and the right decisions, it became one man’s dream and a thriving family empire.

Born in 1903, Alex Couture was the sixth of 11 children in a poor, French-speaking family that lived on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River across from Quebec City in Quebec, Canada. Following the death of his father when he was just 16, Couture first began working in Canada’s railway industry in Quebec City, later moving into meat processing during the Great Depression, a sensible choice during difficult economic times. In 1935, he helped establish a slaughterhouse before working for another meat processor that eventually became what is known today as Maple Leaf Foods. It was while working for these various companies Couture became familiar with rendering techniques since at the time most slaughterhouses processed fat, bones, offal, and other animal by-products in their own facilities. After some time, he made a key move from the shop floor to the administrative offices where his commanding knowledge of English, thanks to his mother and years spent in the railway sector, helped propel his career. Motivated, disciplined, and hardworking, Couture moved to senior management positions at a relatively young age. However, at the age of 40, he decided to become his own boss and rendering seemed a natural path.

Couture and his older brother Déziel founded Couture Enr. in September 1939, the same year Canada declared war on Germany. The brothers decided Déziel would find new customers while Alex supervised plant operations in the Lower Town of Quebec City. Using a wet rendering process that was patched together from second-hand equipment, the company’s first clients were butcher shops that received their meat in the form of quartered animals. The material was first collected in horse-drawn wagons before powered trucks were later added, allowing easier access to steeper areas of town and country slaughterhouses that were further out. The company shipped one tanker truck of its main product, tallow, to Toronto every two months, where most of Canada’s main soap factories were located. Its other product, bone meal, had very little market value at the time and was used as fertilizer.

After a few difficult years, the business finally began to show a profit even though it still was not processing large volumes. The outbreak of World War II acted as a stimulus for Canadian industry, which started to manufacture military goods not only for Canada but also for its allies, the United States (US) and Great Britain. One of the products needed to manufacture explosives was glycerin, which is obtained from rendered animal fat, and the price shot up. Due to this increase in price and demand, Couture Enr. became a flourishing business by the end of the war.

However, in 1944, Déziel fell ill and died at the age of 44. In accordance with the business agreement signed by the brothers, Déziel’s shares were bought by Alex, who became the sole proprietor of the company that was renamed Alex Couture, Inc. Couture took his love of family and provided financial assistance to Déziel’s family over the years, such as paying for butcher shop bills and providing regular sums of money that allowed some of Déziel’s sons to continue their education.

In the post-war years, the Canadian rendering industry expanded considerably due to the industrialization of Quebec’s agri-food sector. Although there still was not much demand for protein meal, Couture decided to extend his business by producing concentrate as an ingredient for animal feeds. In the 1950s, he set up a subsidiary, Moulee Citadelle, built a mill behind the rendering plant, and hired an animal nutrition specialist. At one point, despite having no farming background, Couture established an experimental farm that at its peak had two 30,000-unit hen houses and a piggery, complete with a maternity unit. The farm was an outlet for Moulee Citadelle’s production and highlighted the quality of the mill’s product for potential purchasers.

Thanks to a successful rendering business, Couture was able to send his sons Murray and Jean to study at Loyola College in Montreal, one of the best university-level institutions in Quebec. Murray studied business administration and joined the family business after completing his studies in 1953 at the age of 21, sooner than expected after his father nearly broke his neck in a horse riding accident and almost died. At the time, the company operated five collection routes in Quebec City, three using horse-drawn carts and two using trucks. Alex Couture, Inc. processed roughly 2,000 metric tons of raw material per year. In 1989, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, it processed around 400,000 metric tons of raw material annually and operated a fleet of 160 trailers and 115 vehicles that traveled the equivalent of 200 times around the Earth each year. Today, the renderer processes about 1.3 million metric tons of raw material per year.

Jean joined the family firm a year after his brother and under their father’s guidance, each brother moved to a specific sector of the company: Murray looked after rendering while Jean concentrated on the mill division, which was in its first years of production. In 1956, Murray attended his first convention of the National Renderers Association (NRA), the voice of the North American rendering industry.

By the end of the 1950s, the volume of tallow produced by the plant was large enough for Alex Couture, Inc. to envision the new challenge of exporting its products since the Port of Quebec offered direct routes to European markets. The renderer’s first tallow export went for the manufacture of soap and sailed under the Norwegian flag on a Stolt-Nielsen tanker, which was also the shipping company’s first trans-Atlantic route. Over the next 20 years, Alex Couture, Inc. averaged three or four shipments of tallow per year to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands for the olechemical industry.

As Quebec’s population and agri-food industry grew in the 1960s, the Coutures knew they needed to relocate the plant. Additional volume over the years created tension in the existing neighborhood due to increased truck traffic and insufficient air treatment capacity. Building a new plant outside Quebec City would also put the renderer closer to raw material sources. After months of searching, a large wooded piece of property on the banks of the Chaudière River near the small town of Charny proved ideal. Construction on the batch cooker plant began in 1965 and was fully operational by 1967, although administrative offices and the feed mill remained in Quebec City.

Shortly after opening the new facility, the company began buying collection routes from smaller independent operators in neighboring regions, increasing its raw material supply by about 10 percent each year. This growth led to the plant reaching its maximum operating capacity after only five years. So in 1972, the Charny plant was expanded to include new Dupps continuous cooking equipment to handle the extra material. A second line was added soon after the acquisition of rendering company Recuperation Gentilly. Once fully operational, the plant doubled its production capacity in just a few years, an investment that would pay off during the second half of the 1970s as Alex Couture, Inc. began another period of expansion, including processing chicken feathers.

In 1976, Alex died at home following a short battle with colon cancer. Throughout his illness, Alex remained at the center of the decision-making process. His death, however, marked the end of an era and signaled a turning point in the company’s history.

A Change of Course
In the months following Alex’s death, the company sold Moulee Citadelle and its poultry farms, both decisions Alex had previously consented to prior to his death. At the same time, the company’s administrative offices were moved to the Charny property and Alex Couture, Inc. chose to focus exclusively on rendering.

With the sale of Moulee Citadelle, a quandary arose with Jean Couture, who had sole responsibility for the feed mill and was the second shareholder of the family business along with his brother Murray. Realizing Murray’s 25 years of experience in rendering and his strong network of contacts with NRA and throughout the industry, the situation caused no rivalry between the two brothers and Jean decided to sell his shares to Murray in 1980.

It was also around this time that Murray’s five children – Murray Jr., Hélène, André, Julie, and Martin – began contributing to the company’s development, beginning with Murray Jr., the oldest son, in 1978. After Murray Jr. established himself by overseeing the construction and hiring of an onsite maintenance garage for the company’s fleet, Murray Sr. increased his involvement with NRA, becoming its chairman in 1982, the first non-US renderer to hold the position. Meanwhile, Murray Jr. continued to develop the family business, including acquiring new collection routes. Up until this point, Alex Couture, Inc. had been confined to its natural territory in eastern Quebec, never venturing to Montreal. That would change under the command of Murray Jr.

In 1980, Alex Couture, Inc. purchased Recyclage Kebec, Inc., a rendering plant owned by two brothers about 30 miles east of Montreal that specialized in collecting used cooking oil from restaurants. The rendering plant itself was not considered important, but the owners had binding contracts with a large number of collectors whose routes extended as far away as Toronto in the neighboring province of Ontario. Above all, the purchase of Recyclage Kebec allowed Alex Couture, Inc. to cross a symbolic boundary and launch its assault on the area around Montreal. The recycling of used cooking oil also became a more prominent activity at the Charny plant.

This acquisition was the first of many as Alex Couture, Inc. no longer hesitated to enter the territory of another renderer in order to increase its market share. However, the same was now true of its competitors, causing small independent suppliers to continually switch sides. Murray Jr. decided to put an end to this volatile situation by buying them out systemically. Of the 32 collecting permits issued in Quebec in 1982, a majority ended up in the hands of Alex Couture, Inc.

In 1983, Murray Sr.’s second son, André, joined the family business after obtaining his bachelor’s degree in economics at St. Lawrence University in New York at the age of 23. Four of Murray’s children would complete their studies at this US university. André’s fluent English, along with his systematic and rigorous approach to management, allowed him to rise to the top of Alex Couture, Inc. in just three years and open doors in the area of international trade. This role, along with his father’s European contacts made through NRA, provided opportunity for André to travel to Europe to study its rendering industry and gain in-depth understanding of the technologies it had developed.

Murray Sr.’s youngest son, Martin, began at the company as soon as he graduated college in 1991. His first assignment was the formation of New England Recycling to create new collection routes in the bordering US states of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, which were serviced by rival renderer Baker Commodities, Inc. The old-fashioned territorial war went back and forth with both adversaries recording gains and losses until the Canada-US border was closed to beef products in 2003 as a result of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Murray Sr.’s youngest daughter, Julie, joined the company in 1999 after actively participating in the decisions of the board of directors. His eldest daughter, Hélène, worked at the company for a few years in the late 1980s, but returned to her passion of working on Wall Street.

A Time of Turbulence
In 1986, a wave of reorganization swept over the rendering industry and many companies changed ownership or closed down. Alex Couture, Inc. strived to make new gains and prevent a takeover, especially from British food giant Hillsdown, which already owned Canadian renderer Rothsay and was looking to increase its presence in Quebec. Although Alex Couture, Inc. was unsuccessful at buying two North American renderers, Darling in 1986 and National By-Products in 1988, a key piece of information in the summer of 1986 eventually led to the strategically played-out acquisition of Lomex, a rendering plant on the east side of Montreal and Alex Couture, Inc.’s biggest competitor. The takeover strengthened the position of the renderer, making it one of the three largest players in the Canadian rendering industry.

A holding company named Sanimal, an idea of Murray Jr., was created to oversee the operations of all companies within the group. However, shortly after Sanimal was created Murray Jr. began to lose interest in rendering and ventured into real estate. André had been in sole command of the family business since 1986, building a team that reflected his own vision. Eventually, Murray Jr.’s shares in the company were bought out and he received the real estate portion along with a cash amount. Murray Sr. believed this represented the best solution to preserve the family business for the next generation.

Between 1981 and 1991, Sanimal took over several raw material collection businesses to secure its supplies when either its contracts expired or the owners retired. However, the rendering industry reached the bottom of a cycle in 1991 when commodity markets dropped and the strong growth of preceding years vanished. In addition, union negotiations at the Lomex plant led to a lockout of workers. Managers operated the plant in two shifts, additional volume was sent to Charny, and a mothballed plant was used to full capacity. The strike lasted 59 weeks but the experience forced Sanimal management to reflect on the role rendering companies play in the community. If animal by-products could not be collected and processed suitably, the entire food chain would be affected and the general population would suffer the consequences. Based on this realization, Sanimal lobbied the provincial government to be recognized as an essential service, obtaining final confirmation in May 1994, one week before the expiration of a union agreement at the Lomex plant. Under the act respecting essential services, the Sanimal plants could never cease operations, meaning that union workers could not stop working.

Sanimal continued to expand its recovery network between 1991 and 2004, a period of growth during which it purchased another 35 collectors, mainly in Quebec and Ontario. The company also began to develop niche markets by processing new material in ways that added value. In 1993, Sanimal and US company APC Nutrition of Iowa formed a joint enterprise in Canada to process blood into various products, including a high-quality, easily digestible form of protein that was in high demand in export markets, particularly in fish farms. Plasma was even more valuable as an immunity booster that promoted growth and reduced the death rate among young, recently-weaned livestock. The new plant proved to be so successful that Sanimal set up a second facility in 1999 in Calgary, in the heart of Canada’s beef market. The company invested $14 million to build the new plant with its partner, Vancouver-based renderer West Coast Reduction, after signing a majority ownership contract and securing the volume of blood needed to run the plant at full capacity.

In 1994, Sanimal began to de-bone cow carcasses and process hides and poultry viscera for canning. In 1996, the renderer offered to process slaughterhouse wastewater sludge at its Montreal plant, recovering fats and proteins that would eventually create a combustible product used at the company’s biomass generation station at Charny. To help expand its niche markets, Sanimal first contracted with, and then eventually purchased Bi-Pro Marketing in Guelph, Ontario. This move propelled Sanimal into the pet food market.

Challenges in the New Millennium
As the world entered into a new century, the Couture family was reeling in shock. A golf fanatic and sportsman, Murray Sr. was careful about what he ate, saw his doctor regularly, and cherished his good health that allowed him to stay active. However, nothing could have prepared the Couture family for his death from a heart attack on March 31, 2000, at his home in Florida at the age of 67. Despite the sadness and dismay, the sudden transfer of responsibility to the third generation had relatively little impact on the family business. Murray Sr. had been careful to plan his succession at Sanimal well in advance, and his sons André and Martin were already firmly in control of the business, supported by an experienced board of directors and a strong management team.

The new millennium also brought about new challenges with BSE in Europe, where beef protein was banned in animal feed in 2001, hitting Sanimal hard. André’s frequent travels to Europe gave him insight into the evolving situation so he could prepare the company for possible changes, which would come after Canada discovered the disease in May 2003. All of Canada’s borders were immediately closed to animal by-products. Sanimal found itself with, among other problems, 18,000 metric tons of animal fat in tanks scheduled for export to China and Africa. The situation was even worse at its blood processing facilities; the collection and processing of beef blood was now prohibited. The renderer quickly found itself stockpiling enormous quantities of products that could not be exported or sold. Eventually, the federal government would assist beef producers and let enterprises further down the chain “do their jobs.” For a time, some Sanimal bone meal was sent to landfill and the company was forced to begin charging slaughterhouses and farmers for collection. In time, the credibility of the company and Andre’s foresight of segregating production helped Sanimal weather the storm, re-establishing operations within three weeks.

Shortly after the BSE crisis, another acquisition opportunity in the United States arose. The Meyer family, owners of the Anamax rendering plant in Green Bay, WI, had been meeting with the Coutures for a while and finally accepted a proposal by André that would allow the Meyers to remain as minority shareholders. The transaction was finalized in January 2006 and the Meyer family turned the page after five generations. Sanimal and Anamax were consolidated under the name Sanimax and the Coutures became owners of three new plants: a beef products plant in Green Bay, which processed similar volumes as Sanimal’s plants; a plant in South St. Paul, MN, which also processed chicken by-products; and a plant in De Forest, WI, which processed used cooking oil and eventually produced biodiesel.

The company continued to penetrate the US market from 2006 to 2008, with a number of acquisitions to secure its supply of raw material over an immense territory: Inland Products in Ohio; Kendallville Fertilizer Co. and Environmental Bio-Fuels Technologies, both in Indiana; and A&A Grease Services and U.S. Proteins and Oil in Detroit, MI.

Despite the growth, Sanimax faced another BSE challenge in 2007 when the Canadian government regulated specified risk material, such as bovine brain and spinal tissue, stipulating that these products be separated from other by-products. Although the rendering industry did not support this new regulation, with government assistance, Sanimax created a new production line for these specific by-products at its Charny plant. The fats produced from these by-products could only be sold under certain conditions, but meals and proteins could not and, until 2012, were landfilled. The commissioning of the Charny biomass plant in 2012 made it possible to use these products to produce steam and ash, which could be used as fertilizer.

Taking a broad view of recycling, Sanimax launched a program to recover the energy contained in organic waste of all kinds, collecting expired products from a major retail chain in the United States. A similar approach is currently being implemented with a Canadian chain.

And the Story Continues
Although family ownership of rendering companies is now becoming the exception, the third generation of Coutures – André, Julie, and Martin – are committed to creating a sense of belonging among the fourth generation by educating them in family history and encouraging them to make their own choices about their future. While still young and keenly interested in the world around them and the experiences it offers, they are no strangers to the family business.

The initial $3,000 investment made by Alex and Déziel in 1939 has led, 75 years later, to a company of international standing. The Couture family’s need to innovate and diversify into specialized and novel areas has kept the company at the forefront of the rendering industry.

Sanimax continues to move forward and grow while being respectful of environmental issues and remaining faithful to the pioneering spirit of Alex.

April 2014 RENDER | back