Express Ranches and the Big Event

“I’m a huge supporter of the cowboy ethic and way of life." – Bob Funk, Express Ranches

A mere 45 seconds after the bidding frenzy begins, auctioneer Steve Dorran, a Canadian living in Colorado, bellows “Sold! $80,000!” It is an auspicious start to the fast-paced spectacle that will see more than $5,665,000 change hands in two days.

When it comes to cattle sales, they don’t get bigger or better than the annual “Big Event” that legendary Oklahoma rancher Bob Funk, owner of Express Ranches, hosts every August — this year on the 17th and 18th.

Situated on 6,000 manicured acres 25 minutes west of downtown Oklahoma City, Express Ranches is the largest purebred Angus breeder in North America. “Maybe in the world,” says Funk, modestly, then adds with a twinkle in his eye, “There’s no place like first place.”

The Big Event kicks off on Friday afternoon in the sales barn, with an adjacent tent set up to feed 400 attendees at a time at an all-day buffet. The cattle for sale this afternoon are in the pasture, having already been photographed so that each magnificent profile can be flashed on huge TV screens before each opening bid.

Thousands of photos, ribbons and silver trophies cover walls and fill display cabinets. A sea of bobbing white Stetsons covers the bleachers, while five ring men prod and cajole prospective buyers. Six people are set up at computers to accommodate off-site bidding while several others handle telephone bids. In one corner, there’s a shoeshine stand where John Wood, who says he wouldn’t miss an Express Ranch sale, tells me he started shining shoes in his father’s barbershop 45 years ago and that he will likely spiffy up 300 pairs of boots this weekend.

“I’m a huge supporter of the cowboy ethic and way of life. So much of what we do is based on trust and a handshake.” – Bob Funk, Express Ranches photo: Supplied

On Friday evening, along with his partner Janine Regier, Funk hosts a steak and seafood buffet followed by an hour with country and western singer Vince Gill. More than 1,000 fill a tent as large as a football field to experience Oklahoma-style hospitality.

This year’s event attracted buyers from 40 different states and two Canadian provinces. Rancher Joey King travelled nine and a half hours from his Buck Creek farm in Jasper, Alabama, hoping his “beer budget and whiskey tastes” would result in two additions to his herd. “It’s worth the drive,” he says because Express Ranches treats their customers so well and they stand behind their product.”

The man behind it all

Funk’s route from the family-owned dairy farm in Duvall, Washington, where he grew up, to today’s Express Ranches was paved with hard work and driven by his determination to succeed. Milking cows and managing livestock for 12 years provided hands-on experiences and an enormous sense of pride in work well done, something that is still evident in his many endeavours 70 years on.

Bob Funk graduated from Seattle Pacific University with bachelor degrees in business administration and theology, followed by graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Despite his deep religious beliefs, Funk decided he wasn’t a good enough preacher, and launched his career with ACME Personnel, a Washington-based staffing company. A transfer to Oklahoma in 1970 led, 13 years later, to co-founding Express Employment Professionals. His initial $5,000 investment is today a multi-billion dollar international operation that last year placed more than 500,000 people in new jobs. His ultimate goal is to help a million people find meaningful employment. “I believe in helping people,” he says. “It gives me enormous pleasure to provide new opportunities in their lives.”

The success of this business allowed Funk to fulfill his goal of returning to his agricultural roots, this time as a rancher. In the late 1980s, he purchased 1,100 acres and 50 registered Limousin cattle. “I’m a huge supporter of the cowboy ethic and way of life,” he says. “So much of what we do is based on trust and a handshake.”

The Angus herd

In 1996, Jarold Callahan, an assistant professor who specialized in purebred beef production in the animal science faculty at Oklahoma State University, joined Express Ranches as chief operations manager. Funk and Callahan negotiated the purchase of an Angus cow herd from the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association. Thanks to the right genetics, this became their foundation herd and a major reason for the company’s growth and expansion. Callahan’s emphasis on the use of ultrasound data and Angus Herd Improvement Records (AHIR) resulted in improved herd performance and carcass quality for their customers. Today Callahan is the company president responsible for exporting Express genetics around the world.

Active in every phase of the beef-production process, Express registers in excess of 2,000 calves annually and sells more than 5,000 head of Angus genetics a year. “We spend so much time and energy to get the best genetics to help others get a better return on investment,” Bob Funk tells me. “Our herd sires have set the industry standard, with young sires set to push the bar even higher.”

Canadian impact

Funk’s relationship with Canadian cattlemen blossomed at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair where his Clydesdales have competed in the heavy horse show for five years. It was here that he met Glen Smith of Lyndon Manor in Carlisle, Ont. Smith, who has been breeding cattle for 45 years, bought his first Angus when he was 12 and showed at the fair a year later. This year Smith headed to the Big Event intending to purchase two. “Just two,” he said beforehand. Turns out he was so impressed with the bloodlines and the calibre of these Angus that he returned home with five. “It’s all about improved genetics and a totally different gene pool to introduce to Canada,” he says.

“These cows calve easily and the calves grow quickly, which is very important in our industry,” says Jon Fox of Justamere Ranches near Lloydminster, Sask. “We have attended Express Ranches sales for 23 years and they come to our sales. They are good customers of ours. So it is a win/win situation.”

Rob Smith, CEO of the Canadian Angus Association, recognizes the impact Express Ranches has had and is having on the North American cattle and beef industry. “Canadian Angus breeders enjoy their strongest genetics international trade relationship with our friends in the United States,” he says, “and Express Ranches is certainly one of the most recognized partners of our members.”

Hand in hand with Funk’s passion to succeed is his kindness and desire to give back which has led to creating a unique scholarship program that has awarded 435 students, including nine from Canada, with $4 million to further their post-secondary education.

Trevor Welch, president of the Canadian Angus Association, is quick to recognize “the impressive investment made in Canadian Angus youth through this program.” Seeing Bob Funk go out of his way to chat with young people at the sale, there’s no doubt that, in addition to his past and present successes, he has his eye on the next generation of Angus breeders.

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