A ray of light in AustinPublished 11:51am Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Gary Ray settles into Hormel Foundation’s top chair
This story is a sneak peek of what appears in Progress 2012, publishing Sunday, Feb. 26.
What does a man who accomplished much in a four-decade career do once he calls it quits? Keep as busy as possible, by the looks of things. At least that’s what Gary Ray does.
The man who now heads The Hormel Foundation worked his way up from a night shift manager at a Hormel Plant in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, to controlling the largest division in Hormel Foods before he retired in 2009.
Ray didn’t always aspire to work at Hormel, however. He grew up in Ft. Dodge, and attended Wayne State University to play football with several classmates.
“We tried to play a little football at the time, and so that was the place to be,” he said with a smile.
He spent four years at school studying to be an industrial engineer before deciding to go back home, where he took a job as a night shift supervisor on the Hormel production line in 1968.
“They had a Hormel plant at Ft. Dodge when I grew up,” Ray said. “I had talked to people who worked there, and they talked about what a great organization it was; so that’s what inspired me to, after college, start with Hormel.”
He made his way to the day shift eventually, and in 1969 he married his wife, Pat, a teacher.
“I was working nights, and she was working days; so for about 10 years we didn’t see much of each other,” he said.
He sought more responsibility within the company, eventually working his way to the corporate offices in 1980 to become a manager of Grocery Products.
“We were charged with looking over all of the production of grocery products throughout the company,” he said.
Hormel has long had a reputation of promoting administration from within the company, and Ray was no exception. There hasn’t been a department within Hormel in which Ray hasn’t worked. Moreover, the Rays didn’t have to move every time Gary was promoted to a new department, something for which he’s very thankful. For Ray, however, it wasn’t just Hormel’s opportunity for advancement. Ray credits his mentor, Dick Knowlton, whom he met in the late ’60s, for allowing Ray to capitalize on opportunities.
“He had a plan with me … he always used the term cross pollinate,” Ray said with a chuckle. “That was something that wasn’t done with Hormel because normally when you got in one division, you stayed in that division.”
Knowlton’s idea was for Ray to move to different divisions, picking up as much knowledge about the company as he could.
“He figured that, long term, that would help me succeed,” Ray said.
Ray soon rose to vice president positions within the company, no small feat. That meant Ray was responsible for and worked with some of the innovations that Hormel created and defined during the 1980s, including the move toward refrigerated food, plant innovations like robotic equipment and things like microwaveable and precooked bacon.
There’s a huge amount of responsibility and pressure that goes along with being boss hog of a Hormel division, however.
“You step into an arena where you’re accountable for a lot of different things within that vice president’s job,” Ray said. “Along with your expertise, what really happens is as vice-president, you really have to surround yourself with good people.”
Ray credits the teams he created within each division he headed as the ones responsible for company success.
“You really learn fast that you’ve got to build a team,” he said. “That was one of the things that I always worked hard at, is the people side of the business.”
From there, Ray rose to prominence within the corporate office, eventually taking charge of the meat products division, manufacturing and finally president of the refrigerated foods division.
“If you succeed and do a good job, you can really be put into some important positions within the company,” Ray said. “I really felt tremendously rewarded by being put into that position.”
Yet all good things come to an end, and Ray decided to step down from Hormel in 2009, after 41 years with the company.
“I felt it was time for some younger people to take the reins and take control of the company,” Ray said.
Ray wasn’t all Hormel and no play, however. He has given his time to countless community projects and organizations over the years, as well as nurtured his love for golf. Ray has been on the board of directors for the former Austin Medical Center, The Hormel Institute, The Hormel Foundation, the YMCA, local banks and more. Pat has been involved in APEX and the Hormel Historic Home, as well.
“We’re so fortunate to have what we have in rural America,” Ray said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
The Rays raised their children Conrad and McKenzie in Austin, as well. Conrad went on to become golf coach at Stanford University while McKenzie is a teacher in Decatur, Ill.
Yet for all his accomplishments and the accomplishments to come, Ray offers some valuable advice: Strive for the best and find measurable goals to accomplish what you want.
“You have to want to succeed in life,” he said. “You have to set extremely high goals. If you set a goal in life that you want to succeed in, a very big component of that is it’s got to be measurable. You should have a way of measuring that.”