The Unconventional CEO: Leading with Empathy and Transparency at Omaha Steaks

How would you like to run a 100-year-old start-up?

Omaha Steaks has been around for over a century and has been tremendously successful throughout…achieving every marketer’s dream of becoming a household name. The secret, according to CEO Nate Rempe, is to act like a start-up, and constantly innovate. We’ll give you a taste of his Innovative Leadership ideas in this episode you can chew on. Read on for Nate’s key ingredients to success in a values-driven firm.

At first glance, Omaha Steaks may seem like a straightforward food company, a brand dedicated to selling gifts and subscription boxes that help families get dinner on the table. But in my time here, I’ve learned that we’re so much more—this is a 107-year-old iconic brand powered by passion that has mastered the secret sauce to creating premium customer-centric experiences for families all across the country.

With my background in technology and data-driven decision-making, I was thrilled to join the company in 2016 as its CIO. But to be honest, before I would be elevated to the role of President & COO in 2020 and then to CEO in 2023, I had a lot of learning to do about who Omaha Steaks was and what it needed to win the next 107 years.

Becoming the first non-family leader in the brand’s history meant that there were new leadership lessons I would need to learn and embrace. Even with my experience, I had much to learn about how to be successful at the helm of a century-old, family-owned company. While many companies refer to their culture as a “family,” it’s almost always more in words than action. Yet, at Omaha Steaks, there really was this sense of family—not in the traditional sense per se, but rather in the sense of membership and values. Team members here are celebrated as a part of something special, and we align on shared core values…values we actually live by. Understanding this key cultural element was critical in continuing the Simon family legacy at Omaha Steaks, a legacy I felt a strong responsibility to keep.

In my tenure, I’ve figured out a few key ingredients to being successful in a values-driven firm like ours—but in reality, these principles can be transformational in any business. Here’s my recipe:

1. Empathy and heart at the center: Change is good, but it doesn’t need to be immediate. My first eight months as CIO at Omaha Steaks were more focused on inflicting change on the organization and not on winning the hearts and minds of the people surrounding me every day. It wasn’t until I honestly reflected on my methods—something easier said than done—that I had the realization that I needed to adapt my approach. Empathy in leadership isn’t something that comes naturally to me, and I had to challenge myself to be more conscious of what others were feeling on a day-to-day basis. New leadership always creates feelings of uncertainty for team members, and I needed to inspire and lift up the people around me, so we could make changes together.

2. Transparency with ALL employees establishes a culture of trust: We’re all in this together. We win and lose together. As a result, our culture talks honestly about things like company performance and the ups and downs of running our business—the good and the bad. The more transparency exists, the more engaged and invested team members are, the more they trust the organization, the better they perform, and the longer they stay. I’ve seen transparency work wonders at scale. After all, building a culture of trust is what leadership is about.

3. Leadership means prioritizing two-way conversations: Omaha Steaks has 1,500 employees year-round, and we hire 6,000 more during the holidays. It didn’t feel like enough to sit behind a computer screen and preach at the company from my office. Neither did “all hands” meetings have the intimacy we needed. I wanted to have individual conversations with as many team members as possible. The end result: my team helped me form “Rempe’s Roundtables”—a program where every quarter, I hold 45-minute conversations with small groups of team members across the company, where individuals can share honest feedback and ask me questions. Going into our fourth year of the program, the sessions have been excellent, but the benefits have reached far wider. It has created a dynamic where people feel like they can approach me. That transparency creates trust and loyalty, and our job satisfaction rates have never been higher.

4. A leader’s impact stretches far past the employee count: The late Bruce Simon, who also held the role of CEO at Omaha Steaks, imparted an unforgettable piece of wisdom to me—as CEO, we are the captain of a ship of 7,000-plus souls. And it’s not just the faces we see in the hallways every day: we’re responsible for the well-being of their kids and spouses, too. When the company performs well, we enrich all of those lives—and the opposite is true, too. That’s given me perspective and a unique sense of motivation.

5. Leadership is a learned skill, not an instinct: We can’t “talk the talk” about growing our business without fostering growth inside, too. It’s all connected, and true transformational change in an organization will only come when its culture commits to continuing education around how to lead. Leadership is a learned skill, and at Omaha Steaks, we recognize one of the best investments we can make is in helping our leaders master their craft. Our Accelerate Leadership Program and our Omaha Steaks University courses teach our leadership methodology and reinforce our vocabulary, including relevant concepts that drive our mission: creating amazing experiences—for both our team members and our customers.

Omaha Steaks has had an amazing 107 years in business, and I’m excited to see how we can harness the changing technology and DTC landscape to transform over the next 107. I recognize and am humbled by the impact we can make on customers’ lives every day, and I never take that impact for granted. Whether we’re here to get a wholesome dinner on the table during a busy night or we’re helping someone give the perfect gift during a special occasion, it’s because of the collective heart of our teams that we are able to do so. I’m proud to lead that charge.


This article was written by Nate Rempe as a companion to our podcast episode Why Rare Leadership is Well-Done at Omaha Steaks.

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