Johnsonville Networks its way to Growth

About Johnsonville Sausage

For many customers, a backyard barbecue wouldn’t be the same without filling the grill with Johnsonville’s famous “Brats.” Since its beginning in a small-town Wisconsin storefront in 1945, Johnsonville has made its sausages the most popular in the U.S., and expanded sales to about 30 additional countries. Its combination of quality products, welcoming corporate culture and rapid international growth set privately-owned Johnsonville apart.


Johnsonville has grown fast, first expanding sales into nearby communities, then in 1970, delivering products by truck across Wisconsin. Eight years later, the company started sales outside the state, and in the mid-1980s, expanded across the U.S. Along the way, Johnsonville grew its administrative, production and distribution facilities. But growth brought a new question. How could the company best move vital business information across an expanding geographic footprint, quickly and reliably?


Johnsonville chose an AT&T Virtual Private Network (VPN) to connect its Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, headquarters, and production sites with other locations in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Illinois. The VPN-enabled network moves the majority of the data, voice and video traffic for Johnsonville members. A SONET high-capacity digital service ring connects major locations and provides back up, while a separate high-speed link replicates data from Johnsonville’s main data center in Sheboygan Falls to a disaster recovery site in Colorado.

Grow and Prosper

Though it has grown into a major international brand, Johnsonville Sausage, LLC has never forgotten its roots as a family-run butcher shop in the tiny town of Johnsonville, Wisconsin. The Stayers used a family recipe from Austria to make sausage that just could not be matched. Today, making the No. 1 brand of sausage in America, privately-owned Johnsonville still treats both its customers and its 1,400 members (employees) like part of the family.

“We’re called members, not employees,” said Information Technology Director Greg Emerson. “We all strive to drive our customers’ sales and profits through noticeably better products and services. You feel connected to helping the company grow and prosper and you grow and prosper too.”

In the Johnsonville culture, members are encouraged to take the initiative and make their own decisions. Emerson recalled a major corporate realignment that required a big change and investment in telecommunications. “I went to the owner, and he said ‘if it’s the right thing, just do it.’ We are empowered and say ‘we have the right to get smarter.’”

The bottom line: every job counts. “We drive our customer sales and profits through noticeably better products and services,” Emerson said. “It’s my job to make sure that the communications we provide allow the rest of our members to do that.”

Recipe for Growth

Building on its positive corporate culture and offering a product line that includes Italian, smoked, breakfast and snack sausages, in addition to Johnsonville’s famous Brats, the company has grown fast. Today it’s an international brand; you’ll find Johnsonville sausage in some 30 countries. Johnsonville’s physical infrastructure, centered in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, has grown too. “That original little storefront has been replaced by one of the first plants that they built,” said Emerson. “Now that is accompanied by two other plants at that location. We also have the headquarters, where we have our marketing, sales, finance, IT engineering and R&D.”

Product manufactured in the Johnsonville plants is chilled (in one of the nation’s largest refrigeration plants) and shipped to independently-owned distribution centers. From there, the Brats are trucked to grocers and restaurant suppliers.

Expanding Capabilities

As the Johnsonville business was growing, Emerson became concerned about the performance of his communications carrier. The supplier was entering merger negotiations, and he suspected that could mean trouble.

“You see these companies go through changes, and sometimes their customer service suffers,” he explained. “I thought it was time to make a change.” Johnsonville issued a communications RFP and, after careful review, chose AT&T.

“We were looking for a provider with good international capability,” Emerson said. “Reliability is another priority. The AT&T network has a reputation for having good uptime and being highly reliable.”

AT&T started work at once to increase the capabilities of the Johnsonville network. An immediate issue: the sausage maker’s relatively remote location. “We’re cornfield, cornfield, cornfield, sausage plant, cornfield,” said Emerson. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and AT&T brought out fiber all the way from Sheboygan to Sheboygan Falls for us.”

The AT&T Virtual Private Network now connects the various Johnsonville sites, delivering data, video and some voice communications. With the increase in network capacity and the ability to prioritize the various types of traffic using Class of Service parameters, traffic runs smoothly. “Class of Service is an important thing to have when you’re running voice, video and data over the same network,” Emerson noted.

Video delivers virtual face-to-face contact and saves Johnsonville time and money, compared to travel.

To serve another facility, Emerson chose AT&T IP Flexible Reach to consolidate voice communications on the VPN. “The only service the local provider had was analog,” Emerson said. IP Flexible Reach gave us a more affordable solution. It’s great and it’s less expensive. I like both those things.”

Hungry for Bandwidth

While it was an old family recipe with Big Flavor that got the business sizzling, today’s operations at Johnsonville are state-of-the-art, tightly managed through software and linked by the VPN. SAP tracks customer orders, manufacturing processes, deliveries and payment schedules.

“Our plants are pretty technically advanced,” Emerson said. “We run scanners, barcode readers and wireless printers that print labels for packaging. This technology is running on an up-time basis almost 24 hours a day.

“All the data that’s running at these plants is constantly being sent and returned to our headquarters computer center over the AT&T Virtual Private Network. We really count on our communications being up and running so we can continue to produce product.”

And the flow of information goes far beyond the factory walls. “We’re shipping product, and sending real-time communications for making those arrangements,” Emerson said.

When your business is built on data, of course, it’s essential to protect that data. “We look at opportunities from inside and then we try to find a technology to match it,” Emerson said. Johnsonville recently established a disaster recovery site in Colorado, where company data is backed up each day, transmitted over a 50 Mbps AT&T link from the Sheboygan Falls headquarters.

Johnsonville is now working with AT&T to install a second SONET ring in another building on the main campus, as a kind of belt-and-suspenders backup. “If this one was lost that one could be fired up, and we could be communicating again,” Emerson said.

Replicating Means Savings

“The latest, greatest thing is using the VPN for our replication.” The network is helping Emerson trim the cost of desktop computing. Computing power is consolidated in the data center then networked to desktop terminals through a Virtual Desktop Interface (VDI). “Everybody has their computer basically in the data center,” Emerson explained. “We don’t have to buy all those PCs. The bandwidth provided through the AT&T VPN gives us that capability.” Today more than 40 percent of Johnsonville members use VDI.

There’s always room to improve. But bottom line, working with AT&T is working for Johnsonville.

“I get calls from potential customers who want to talk to me about our service,” said Emerson. “I tell them definitely give AT&T a chance because they’re willing to meet your needs. Don’t shy away because you might view them as a big company. I think AT&T wants to help its customers and to deliver. They definitely know what they’re doing when it comes to provisioning and setting up a network.”

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