Passion for their hometown has drawn two Mullen natives to help open a business in Hooker County.
John Howell and Brian Killion have partnered with Jacob Wingebach of Mullen’s Hooker County Meat & Packing Co. to create Sandhills Beef Co.
Both Mullen High School graduates, Howell and Killion live in Colorado but have always tried to get back to the Sandhills as often as possible.
“You don’t realize how special of an area it is until you leave,” Howell said. “You appreciate it so much more. The people, the work ethic, the attitude, the mentality.”
“We bring other people back here with us and they always ask, ‘Why are you not living here?’” Killion said.
The men understand that in order for people to be able to come back to rural areas, there must be a way to make a living.
With this business venture, they hope to give other people the opportunity to live here — to give their kids what they had growing up.
Both Howell and Killion have athletic ties. Howell played six NFL seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, including winning the 2003 Super Bowl. Killion was a wrestler, competing in the Junior Olympics and attending college on a wrestling scholarship. Both are coaches in their sports.
“Being in the competitive sports industry, you always pay attention to how people eat,” Howell said. “There is a lack of opportunity for the purest animal protein you can have… But I never looked at it from a business standpoint.
“Now we saw the value of the product and the people here and wanted to combine and merge to bring it all together.”
Howell lives in Lone Tree, Colorado, with his wife, Laura, and their three children, Jaelin — a soccer superstar at Florida State — Jack, a high school junior, and Jake, an eighth grader. After his football career, Howell has been in the hunting and shooting outfitting industry, selling hunts all over the world. He also worked in medical sales for Stryker. For 15 years he has owned Dismal River Outfitters on his family’s ranch south of Mullen, which he merged with Dismal River Club, where he manages, sells and books hunts.
Killion is married to Jamie, who happens to be John’s sister, and they have a 10-year-old daughter, Jordan. They live in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Brian and Jamie have built and sold several businesses mostly in trucking and construction. They also have some commercial real estate.
Jacob moved to Mullen from Omaha with his family five years ago to purchase the meat packing plant. Originally from Kansas, Wingebach graduated from the United States Naval Academy and was a submarine officer. He was a resident inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Fort Calhoun before moving to the Sandhills. His four children attend Mullen Public Schools: Jacob, seventh grade; Georgia, fifth grade; Lola, fourth grade, and Gus, kindergarten.
Sandhills Beef Co. will still provide custom processing, but they will also now be assisting ranchers to capitalize on other opportunities for their meat so others too can “eat like a rancher.”
Those opportunities include direct marketing their product and contacting niche meat companies who don’t have their own facilities. They will also be marketing beef under the Sandhills Beef Company label.
The paperwork to become USDA certified will soon be submitted, so they hope to have that certification before the end of the year.
Wingebach will be in charge of production, while Howell and Killion will be doing the sales, marketing and distribution.
Howell said at the very center of everything he’s sold, providing great customer service has been his priority.
“We know this is the best product in the world and we are going to give them the best experience,” Howell said.
The key to that is building trust, where Howell and Killion have advantages not only because of their high level athletic contacts, but also because of both growing up in Mullen.
They have a passion for the area and hope to provide opportunities for employment not only at the plant, but also as conduits outside the plant.
Sandhills Beef Company plans to have an informational meeting for interested ranchers on Sept. 8 at 4 p.m. at the plant south of Mullen.
Sandhills Beef Co. can be reached at 308-546-2575.