It started when Scott Mueller had ambition to grow beyond raising crops and feeding cattle on the family farm in north-central Nebraska. Today, he's the head of Samson LLC, a diverse, environmentally-responsible agricultural business in Columbus, one that's grown a workforce from two employees in 2001 to eight today, and a 9.5 percent bump in sales over the past three years, to $3.1 million in 2014.
As if that weren't enough, for diners with a palate for juicy, tender Certified Angus Beef, Mueller met with cow-calf producers for his feed lot to meet the high standards for the brand. Then, becoming the only licensed feed lot and restaurant combination in the country, he, along with his wife, Pat, opened the now-popular Traditions Inn and Restaurant in town to serve up those prized steaks.
And from that taste of the hospitality industry, Mueller teamed with investors to secure $1.7 million in financing from an SBA 504 loan with help from the Nebraska Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) to purchase and renovate a hotel and convention center in Columbus.
Environmental regulations push the company to diversify
After his father retired in 1986, Mueller took over part of the farm; within a year he launched a grain and livestock feed lot, first to work with the county extension office on a steer test, then eventually growing it into a 2,500-head commercial operation.
But by 1995, increasingly tight environmental regulations in the industry pushed the company to diversify. Eventually, Mueller decided to lease out the lot to focus on other agricultural services.
With an eye on the growing popularity of sustainable practices in the agriculture industry, Mueller created a subsidiary to compost the waste from the lot and other locally-produced organic wastes to sell to commercial and residential customers. The operation would blend that waste and use natural microbial digestion to sterilize the raw product into fertilizer for crop production and landscaping; there's a large agricultural industry giant nearby that depends on them to manage their waste by-products to row crop fields in the area.
That same year, a well-known worldwide brand in animal feed asked Mueller, already a strong buyer himself, to sell their products to his lot customers.
"I started out with one customer," Mueller said. "Myself."
Soon enough, the company started winning corporate sales awards, including one reflecting 50 percent year to year growth.
In 2001, Mueller helped form Samson LLC, a company offering commodity brokerage services for beef producers and market speculators. But the brokerage revenue wasn’t enough on its own to sustain the company's growth, motivating Mueller to expand that company's reach further into the agricultural industry.
Helping get Nebraska beef to dinner plates overseas
Cattle producers face an uphill battle to rebuild export markets lost over the past decade or so. With complex rules now in place to break into markets to sell beef from the heartland of America to Japan, Europe and other countries around the world, it's a challenge to meet both these requirements and the demand from domestic customers. Mueller figured out how to do both, supporting the $1 billion-a-year Nebraska beef export market
Mueller's company worked closely with the Department of Agriculture to help producers provide cattle for the growing export market. They helped build a database and auditing system for their Process Verified Program, a new, detailed process from calf birth to market that helps meet age-verified, non-hormone treated, antibiotic-free and quality regulations for beef. By 2006, Samson LLC became the second firm in the country to be validated by the USDA under the Non-Hormone Treated Cattle program; today, the company serves more than 500 certified customers in 36 states.
But they didn't stop there.
Before he leased out its operation, Mueller's feed lot earned certification from Certified Angus Beef, a program that builds a genetically-superior herd from pasture to plate to meet the demand from diners with a palate for juicy, tender steaks.
All they needed was a place to serve them up.
Saving a Columbus landmark
Along with his wife, Pat, Mueller turned a grand historic home into Traditions Inn, now known as one of the city's go-to places for unique and delicious entrees. The move also gave them the unique ability to offer beef comparable to their own, local Certified Angus Beef licensed lot to the table.
After earning an MBA from nearby Wayne State University and completing the Gallup Entrepreneur Acceleration System Program, he met with other community leaders interested in saving a local landmark--and a big source of jobs for a town of some 22,000--the hotel and convention center on the verge of shuttering.
In 2013, Mueller, his family and eight investors from the community visited the Nebraska Business Development Center NBDC for help with the SBA 504 loan approval through NEDCO to save it.
"If it closed, it wouldn't be re-created or re-opened," Mueller claimed flatly. "It would be lost."
The NBDC director, Loren Kucera, was happy to help on a personal level--after all, Kucera was one of Mueller's instructors at Wayne State.
Not only will the hotel stay open, but Mueller has opened a new restaurant inside to serve Angus beef from their lot and from local and regional producers, too.
And he's found there are some difference between the agriculture industry and the hospitality business.
"With cattle, it can be from120 to more than 365 days before you know you've done a good job and with crops it's five months before you know whether you've done a good job," Mueller said. "But in a restaurant it's immediate feedback."
But Mueller hasn’t focused on just building the business holdings; he’s worked on building the economy of northeast Nebraska, starting with his own office.
Samson LLC works out of handsome, wood-paneled spaces on the second floor of the historic Evans House on the edge of Columbus' downtown business district, a century-old former home purchased by the company and shared with a number of other small firms as it undergoes careful restoration to the floor plan of its former center of social and economic activity. There, Mueller also hosts a weekly “what can we do to grow Columbus” get-together with local business owners and economic development leaders.
Mueller also serves on a number of advisory boards, including the Beef Quality Assurance Committee, where he looks out for the interest of Nebraska cattle producers.
The secret to his small business success? He's quick to credit his staff, and the dedication and expertise from his family. But he admits he's got a weakness when it comes to new ideas. He laughed: "I just have to learn how to say no."