adam eggs standing

The Egg Man

He seems destined for a life in politics, but Adam Burtner’s path is already taking some unexpected turns—in an egg truck.

by Christina Egbert

Adam Burtner ‘17 planned out his entire life when he was six years old: He was going to become President of the United States.

For the next 15 years he worked to make that possible.

He paid close attention to political news, from local to federal. He tried to convince other Brownsburg High School students to vote as soon as they were old enough. His senior class voted him “Most Likely to Become President.” (Obviously.)

He participated in Boys State, which led him to Boys Nation, which led him to Washington DC, where he debated healthcare with President Barack Obama—a man with whom he didn’t always agree but certainly respected.

He majored in rhetoric at Wabash, with minors in political science and religion, and was a Wabash Democracy and Public Discourse (WDPD) Fellow for three years.

He interned with Mayor Greg Ballard, then worked on Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s transition team.

The political path to the presidency couldn’t have been clearer, and everybody saw it.

But Adam Burtner chose eggs.

 

On a frigid morning in early December, Burtner hops into the cab of the refrigerator truck he’s been loading in Noblesville since before 8 a.m. He pulls out his phone for directions.

“A lot of people always thought my passion was politics,” he says, slowly and smoothly accelerating in a truck carrying 156,000 eggs. “But what people don’t realize is all that is driven by a sheer desire to have impact on communities and change people’s lives for the better.”

Helping create public policies seemed the obvious choice. By March of his senior year, Burtner already had job opportunities with the Indiana governor’s office, a lobbying firm, and alumnus Jeff Perkins’ firm Huntbridge in Washington D.C.

But then he grabbed coffee with Jimmy Owens ’06, the former chief of staff for Jeff Simmons, senior vice president of Eli Lilly and Company and president of Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health division.

Owens saw another opportunity. Just that morning he had been sent a job spec for an executive director for a program Simmons had helped start at Elanco. Hatch for Hunger is a nonprofit that partners with egg producers to provide central Indiana food pantries with thousands of eggs. In 2017 Elanco decided to turn the project into a standalone organization. That meant it needed a director.

Owens put Burtner in touch with the hiring director for Hatch for Hunger, and within a week and a half, it was interview, offer, and acceptance.

“It just spoke to me,” Burtner says. “The mission spoke to me first because I know how pressing of an issue food security is. To be right out of college and be asked to run something so substantial—it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

“Plus, I want to learn from the best, and I really rely on the group at Elanco who are part of the board of directors for support and guidance. And Jeff Simmons is a nationally recognized leader in food security and animal health, and, as a mentor, there’s nobody better.”

 

Burtner just misses a stoplight, visibly frustrated that the truck won’t go over 55 mph, even with his foot pushing the gas pedal practically into the floor.

He points out that when he took on the title of Executive Director of Hatch for Hunger, it also meant “sole employee.” Yet he had everything Hatch for Hunger needed to really get off the ground.

WDPD had given him plenty of experience dealing with pressing problems and finding solutions.

His political background helped him understand how policy, like the recently passed tax reform bill, affects nonprofit organizations.

Being one of the first interns at Huntbridge and working with Perkins ’89 showed him how business is cultivated through relationships.

Burtner says he was excited about the opportunity. Anxious, too. Three weeks after starting his job, he met with his board of directors for the first time. He felt pretty good about it. But two days later he broke out in hives and his throat began to close up. Thinking he was having an allergic reaction, he rushed to the doctor.

It wasn’t allergies; it was a panic attack.

“They threw a lot at me in terms of what they were wanting to do in 2017, how we’re going to grow the rest of the year, and it scared me to death,” Burtner recalls. “I had no clue how it was going to happen. So I broke down. I thought, There is no way I am going to figure this out.”

He winces as the truck hits a pothole, recalling one of his first deliveries and arriving at the pantry, opening the cargo box door, and finding all the cartons had fallen. He says he’s confident the poles and reinforcements he bought to keep his cargo of eggs from falling over will work.

“When I took the job, I knew nothing about agriculture or eggs or nonprofit. I felt super unqualified. I still do. I’m still drinking from a fire hose.”

Burtner’s mentor, Marcus Casteel, claims just the opposite is true.

“Adam is way over-qualified in many different areas,” says Casteel, associate pastor at the church where Hatch for Hunger is headquartered. “Those gifts he has, he’s able to take those and do a lot of great things.”

 

Since starting in June 2017, Burtner has increased egg donations from Rose Acre Farms, the second largest egg producer in the world, from 5,400 dozen eggs a month to 20,000. Hatch for Hunger has brought on many more food pantries, received corporate sponsorships from businesses and restaurants, and added three new employees. That’s exactly what his board asked Burtner to do at that first meeting, but they wanted him to get all of it done by the end of 2017. He got it done by September of that year (and egg donations are currently 50,000 dozen eggs/month).

“I was just trying to figure out how to keep the lights on, let alone grow it. But that showed me that it’s not as hard as I thought at first if you put your mind to it.”

As of July 2018, Hatch for Hunger has expanded to three more states: Arizona, Wisconsin, and Missouri. By 2020, Burtner plans to be in five more states: Iowa, Mississippi, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

By 2025, nationwide.

Every state having its own executive director moves Burtner up to CEO.

“I’m only 22 years old. It’s not about the title at all, but there are not very many people right now who have the opportunity to learn like I have,” Burtner says. “We have a great team, and though we experience a lot of growing pains, we’re all learning to roll with the punches as they come. I’m very blessed.

“When you’re driven by something that’s not a bottom line, it gives you a lot of flexibility to figure out how we impact more families. That’s what drives your decision making.”

 

As Burtner pulls into a food pantry’s driveway an older woman named Bonnie walks out and shouts, “The Egg Man is here!”

Burtner steps out of the truck, walks straight to her and gives her a huge hug.

“How are you doing, gorgeous?”

One of the other food pantry directors has Adam listed in her phone as “Adam Eggs.”

Burtner’s mother is still not over the irony of it all.

“Here’s a secret; I never used to like eggs,” he says. “My mom was like, ‘I used to try to get you to eat a fried egg every morning before school, and you hated it. Now you’re the egg guy!’”

Sometimes, when he raises the back of the delivery truck, he sees only huge boxes of cartons to unload, with numerous stops still left to go.

But if he slows down enough, he’ll see a carton of one dozen eggs for what it really is:

“It’s the mom who puts a hard-boiled egg in her kid’s lunch every day. It’s the woman from Venezuela who works as a janitor and loves to bake. It’s families who, at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, were so excited to have eggs because they always had deviled eggs when they were growing up, and they were able to have them this year too.”

Burtner’s phone is still in his lap to keep his directions within reach. He’s still getting used to driving to these food pantries, and yet completely content at the same time.

“I’m happy,” he says.

 

But what does this mean for six-year-old Adam Burtner? The one who dreamed that—no, knew that —he was going to be president someday?

There’s no set-in-stone plan anymore. But there are certainly still goals.

“It’s not a very well-kept secret.” He laughs. “Between Wabash and everybody else, it’s like, ‘When is he going to run?”

Burtner says that if he does run, he’d like to be asked instead of forcing it himself. He guesses he’ll start at state senate, and then, after that, maybe mayor of Indianapolis? Governor of Indiana? (He’s already worked in both offices!)

“I want to be wherever I can keep my moral compass and have the most impact on people without losing my heart for it.”

He never once thought of Hatch for Hunger as a stepping stone for political aspirations, but, when that time does come, he’ll be a different politician because of it.

“I’m not going to come in as somebody who says they know everything, tries to fix things, but has never seen the problems. I’ve been super privileged and blessed to never have had to go to a food pantry. I grew up in Brownsburg. I went to Wabash. I’m a white male. But I want to have credibility to say that I’ve seen this stuff.”

“I’ve got ideas for how to fix it,” he smiles.