Nearly 40 years ago, late on a Sunday, two young girls spent the evening working with their father in the Oklahoma National Stockyards. “We had gone with dad to help sort, but wound up cleaning water tanks, and doing a lot of other stuff, too. They were expecting a big run – probably 18 to 20,000 – and we were just worn out. My sister and I were sitting in a single-cab pickup truck getting ready to leave the yard, and she had her head resting on my shoulder, and I had my head resting on hers,” Kelli Payne reminisced. “I remember my father said, ‘Girls, girls! Wake up! This is the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see in your life.’ There were pots lined up all the way down the street and as far as you could see were lights on the semis.”
While Payne, likely less than 10 years old at the time, didn’t appreciate her father’s enthusiasm then, she admits the memory is one of her favorites. “I didn’t understand him at the time because I was just a kid, but when the pots are all lit up and I’m walking around the yards, I’m still mesmerized by it.” She added, “It planted a seed of appreciation for it and for finding beauty wherever you work. To see that still happening today is pretty cool.”
Last April, Kelli Payne, of Mustang, Okla., made history when she became the first female General Manager of the Oklahoma National Stockyards in its 110 year history. It might be a new position, but for Payne, the job’s as fitting as a trusted pair of boots.
You see, she basically grew up on the old red bricks. Her father, Glenn Payne, began his career at the Stockyards as an order buyer for a company called S & C when Kelli was about five years old. In the mid-1980s, Payne purchased a commission firm called Wright-Halliburton, which eventually merged with another company in 1990 to become Central-Halliburton. Kelli spent most of her time at the Stockyards, and even when she went to college, she would return on the weekends to help sort cattle and help in any way she could.
“I even sat out a semester of college so I could work, simply because I loved it. It was never on my radar to become the general manager here, but every new job I took would open up more doors. I was never bored or tired of a job, but opportunities kept coming up for personal growth. God just kept opening those doors for me,” Payne recalled.
Some of those jobs included working for Congressman Wes Watkins, working for nonprofits, managing several Main Street Programs, and owning her own painting and remodeling company.
She started her first official job at the Stockyards as a clerk for Stockman’s Order Buying for Tom Gilliam and Bill Griffeth. “Tom and Bill were actually just inducted into the inaugural class of the Cattle Marketers Hall of Fame. I went to the induction in Pratt, Kansas to show my support. They gave me an opportunity and it was an honor to be able to be there for them. They’ve done some awesome things and been around a long time,” she said.
Eventually Kelli took the position of Executive Director for Stockyards City Main Street, and shortly thereafter was offered the Yards Liaison position for the Oklahoma National Stockyards. She held that position until last April, when she took on the General Manager title.
“I’m still serving as the President of Stockyards City Main Street. It’s been challenging running both, and time management is really crucial. Thankfully I don’t require a whole lot of sleep, but I think it is aging me relatively faster than I’d like to admit,” she said with a laugh. “It’s about balance. I don’t know how I get through some of my days, but I do it because I love every part of it.”
For Kelli, there was never a question about continuing her involvement with the tourist side of Stockyards City.
“I think it is so important to stay involved, especially with that district. With Stockyards City and the actual Stockyards being born at literally the same time, it’s important to preserve that feel and culture. Folks want to come see it, and I want it to feel like home for everyone,” she said.
Day-to-day duties for Kelli include a lot of talking and visiting, continually getting the pulse of not only the stockyards, but also the agriculture community as well as national politics. “Someone has to always be gathering information or we lose our opportunity to anticipate change,” she explained. “I check in with people daily to get reports and exchange ideas. I want to know how the morale of the company is. I’m not able to be in the ‘yards as much as I would like to, but whether it is a sale day or not I’ll talk to commission firms or order buyers. When I make it home at night, I’ll look at where we are news wise and check out the political landscape.”
Public speaking and guiding tours continue to be a major part of Payne’s job description. “The tourists just keep coming through, and I enjoy getting to meet all the groups. I think it’s also important to do trade shows and sponsorships and invite people out here to see what is going on,” she said. “It is easy to take for granted that we have the crown of being the world’s largest market, but there are folks new to the industry. We have a lot of shippers who have a heritage of selling here, but there are also folks getting into the business that don’t know we exist.”
One of Kelli’s major goals for the Stockyards was to increase the number of cattle being sold each week. “We’re certainly getting that done. This was a huge week (Week of Nov. 18) for us. We had been expecting a run of about 12,000, and we wound up with 15,400,” Payne recalled.
That meant that Payne and her team were up more than 48 hours straight. “The sale Monday didn’t get over until 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, and of course Tuesday’s sale started at 8 a.m. and didn’t end until 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. Most of our people hadn’t worked sales like that, and I was pretty rusty, so it was tough,” she said. “Still, the team was great and we pulled together.”
That feeling of being a part of a team is another major goal. “It takes all of us to make it work. We value everyone’s input, and there is no suggestion too small or that will be brushed off, even from customers. We want that openness and transparency. This is a really large location, but it has that small-town barn feel, and we want to keep that going. No one is too small to sell here,” she said.
Teamwork played a major role last December, when several different people of the Stockyards came together to apprehend two cattle thieves.
It started when Scott McCormack of National Commission Firm noticed stolen cattle on the grounds. “He knows his customers’ cattle, and these were out of Kansas and we don’t typically have a lot of Kansas shippers because there are so many barns up there. These cattle had just been unloaded, so I went to my guys who had unloaded them and got a description,” Kelli recalled.
It happened that a Yard Supervisor had spotted the thieves’ rig by Cattleman’s Steakhouse, so everyone involved knew they were close and would likely try to intercept the check.
“We had already called the authorities, but we were having to keep it quiet. In Oklahoma Law, it doesn’t matter how the cattle are sold, the thieves just have to touch the check for them to be arrested. It all started about 9 a.m., and by 10 they were in handcuffs,” she said. “Everyone had to work together to make this apprehension.”
Assuming the matter was over, Kelli was surprised by a call from a Kansas Radio Station. “They said they wanted to do a story on us, and that they do a $5,000 reward for cattle theft. I knew I couldn’t give it to just one person, because everyone had a hand in it, so we just put it towards having a big party when they came down to do the presentation. It was a lot of fun and great for morale. The Rodeo Opry came out and we had BBQ and the team was able to sit down, visit, and have a good time with each other,” she said.
Kelli also took the opportunity to get several staff members to be BQA certified. “That same day we did testing so they could get certified for animal handling. It’s a goal to get everyone on the yard certified, and it’s opportunities like that that we are looking for,” she said.
Read more in the January issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.