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The Advantage of Perseverance | September 2022

by Cheryl Kepes

Photos courtesy Sullivan Supply

Sullivan Supply - building an industry leading company from a shoestring budget and wealth of determination.

John Sullivan, founder and owner of Sullivan Supply, grew up the second youngest of eight children. Even in his earliest days, John displayed a passion for the livestock industry. John’s dad, a row crop farmer who dabbled in feeder cattle, quickly recognized John’s love for the cattle business. “My dad and older brother, Joe, took me around to quite a few sales when I was younger. My dad let me do my thing. He supported me even though it wasn’t his thing. He let me find my way,” John Sullivan shared.

Finding His Way

Find his way he did indeed. After decades of hard work and innovation, Sullivan Supply reigns supreme in the livestock show supply industry. Strolling through the barns at most any livestock show in America, one will find exhibitor after exhibitor using Sullivan Supply products.

Currently, Sullivan Supply sends sales teams with products to as many as 800-plus livestock shows a year, manages four physical locations, works with three marketing partners and operates its own manufacturing facility. Sullivan Supply ships its products to all 50 states in the U.S. and throughout the world. The company’s headquarters are in Dunlap, Iowa. Sullivan Supply also operates offices in Hillsboro, Texas and Lodi, California.

Early Years

Sullivan Supply evolved from John and Dede Sullivan’s drive and determination to make a living in an aspect of the cattle industry. The truth is - the Sullivans wanted to establish a purebred or seedstock cattle operation, but they didn’t have enough money to buy cattle or land. Therefore, they started to explore other avenues of the industry.

John spent four years managing show and sale cattle for large ranches; Rosanky Cattle Company in Texas and Little Mondeaux Ranch in Nevada. A “show barn junkie” since his teenage years, John possessed a wealth of knowledge about show products. “I was a herdsman for show cattle operations for a number of years, so I naturally loved that part of it. And that really led me into the show supply business,” John explained.

The Sullivans saw untapped opportunities in the show supply industry. “We thought that the industry had not changed a lot in 10 years to be honest. It really hadn’t progressed with innovation or improvement,” John said. They wanted to develop fresh, innovative products for livestock show enthusiasts; products specific to the show animal.

In 1989, equipped with a dream and determination, John and Dede, both 23 years old, moved home to Dunlap, Iowa to start Sullivan Supply. The Sullivans began building their business out of John’s parents’ garage. To say their beginnings were meager would be an understatement. Using cardboard boxes for desks and a borrowed, old farm truck to transport product, the young couple worked to create their business.

First Products

Due to his years of experience in the livestock industry, John already had a good idea of new products he wanted to offer customers. “I had been involved in showing cattle since I was knee high and always loved it so much,” John shared. “So, it was kind of natural to know where I wanted to start and what I wanted to do as far as products.”

One of John’s best friends from high school, Scott Kinzer, worked with John on the development of Sullivan Supply’s first products. At the time, many of the show products available were catch-all. The young entrepreneurs envisioned product lines tailored for specific species to address an animal’s unique hide, skin, composition, and needs. The ideas came easily, but the execution proved a bit trickier.

The initial products evolved through much trial and error. John and Scott worked closely with a chemist to perfect the composition of each product. By 1990, Sullivan Supply had its first products ready to roll - Tail Adhesive, Prime Time Adhesive, and Kleen Sheen. More than 30 years later, the original three products remain favorites at cattle shows across the country.

The chemistry in some of Sullivan Supply’s first products hasn’t changed, while ingredients in others have been fine-tuned. “Some of the products have stayed the same because you don’t want to touch that formula. But products like Kleen Sheen, we refined it over the years, as cattle have gotten more hair, we have lightened it up and more hair growing aids have been infused,” John explained.

Today, John collaborates with Sullivan Supply Product Manager, Scott Kinzer; Sullivan Supply Director of New Product Development, James Sullivan; and Sullivan Supply General Manager, Matt Burkhart during monthly meetings to assess strategy and new product ideas. “The meetings are energizing and fun and a wealth of knowledge spills out,” John stated.

Tough Times

Though at the top now, the company’s climb to success has been riddled with tough times, shoestring budgets, and financial strain. The rapid growth and popularity of Sullivan Supply’s products let the Sullivans know they were on the right track.

Yet, every year the company grew, the Sullivans needed to expand inventory. “Maybe the worst part of it was we just never had enough capital. We just didn’t,” John said. “We were growing year two, three, four, and five and we were traveling around to all the shows. We knew it was going pretty good and we made a little bit of money. But then our inventory went up and that ate up every ounce of profit.”

It took Sullivan Supply close to a decade before it could comfortably balance its exponential growth and inventory costs. The company’s other biggest obstacle to overcome was the development of a product line. The creation of a full product line required lots of time and money, both of which the company was in short supply. The Sullivan team worked for 20 years to create and distribute a full product line.

American Made

From the beginning, the Sullivans made it a priority to manufacture a majority of their own products themselves and to ensure they were made in America. Controlling the manufacturing gives the company more flexibility to make improvements, catch imperfections, and deliver quality products. “If a Sullivan comb is coming off the press and something is not right with it, we are responsible for that. So, we don’t take a shortcut - we don’t try to put an inferior product out there. We are the manufacturer and the retailer, so it needs to wind up perfect,” John explained.

New Manufacturing Facility

The manufacturing side of the business just received an upgrade. The company recently completed the construction of a 90,000 square foot manufacturing plant, located 18 miles from Sullivan Supply’s headquarters. Due to Sullivan Supply developing and manufacturing products, the company has created many jobs for people living in the small town of Dunlap.

Crews at the new manufacturing plant fabricate Sullivan Supply’s steel and aluminum products. In addition to livestock equipment, Sullivan Supply manufactures all the basketball rims used in the NBA and half the colleges in the country. The plant also fabricates park benches for metropolitan cities.

Giving Back

As Sullivan Supply’s success evolved, the company started to institute new programs to benefit the livestock industry. In 2009, Sullivan Supply initiated a scholarship program. Every year the company awards $1,000 scholarships to 20 youth involved in agriculture.

In 2010, The Sullivans founded Stock Show University, an educational program featuring experts who host fitting and animal care clinics for youth across the country. The company developed The Pulse in 2014, an online resource for daily livestock news and show results.

Sullivan Farms

John and Dede purchased a farm in 1992 and started their seedstock operation called Sullivan Farms. A few years later, Sullivan Farms hosted its first production sale. Now, Sullivan Farms runs two large online production sales, one in the spring and one in the fall. Additionally, Sullivan Farms offers as many as eight online sales throughout the year. Sullivan Farms specializes in raising Simmental, Angus, and Chianina cattle.

John Elder manages the daily operations at Sullivan Farms. “His (John Elder’s) dedication, honesty and knowledge are second to none,” John shared. The operation raises 300 ET (embryo transplant) calves in the spring and a 100 in the fall. The philosophy at Sullivan Farms is to produce complete, quality cattle.

Focus on Quality

Reflecting on his accomplishments, John attributes his success to two things: producing a quality product and surrounding himself with good people. He appreciates the contributions of his team from the supply company to the cattle operation. “People like Matt Burkhart and John Elder are difference makers. We are fortunate to work with them,” John said.

But most of all, John credits his achievements to the support of his wife, Dede, and their two daughters, Sara and Sage. “You have to have people behind you when the going gets tough, when a 60-hour week turns into an 80-hour week,” John shared. “You have to have that support system. I have been fortunate with that 100 percent.”

Fueled with the same passion and support from its beginnings, Sullivan Supply and Sullivan Farms forge into the future. Through decades of grit and innovation, the Sullivans achieved their goal of making a living in the livestock industry. While they were working to accomplish their dream, John and Dede simultaneously created a company designed to equip other people to reach their dreams as well.

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