Archived Story

Knowlton shaped the Austin we know today

Published 10:59am Thursday, October 10, 2013

I’ve had the opportunity to attend three straight Austin Area Chamber of Commerce fall meetings now, and Wednesday’s event at the Austin Country Club was as eventful as the first two. The stated purpose of the meetings — to elect members to the Chamber’s board of directors — usually takes little time, with the number of nominees matching the available spots. More colorful is the lifetime achievement award presentation, which this year went to former Hormel Foods CEO and Austin native Richard Knowlton.

Knowlton’s story is one with which many in town are quite familiar, including most of those in attendance, but as the years tick by that number is declining. Still, it’s one everyone in town should know.

It’s a pretty remarkable story, and one that shaped what Austin is today. Now in his early 80s, Knowlton grew up about two blocks from Hormel’s meatpacking plant. He climbed the ranks of Hormel and the board named him president in 1979 and CEO in 1981. He led Hormel during a tumultuous period — most notably the union strike that began in 1985 — but he was also, by many accounts, responsible for keeping the plant in Austin.

“He stopped conventional wisdom and insisted on building the plant here,” said Hormel Foundation Chair Gary Ray, who presented Knowlton with the award Wednesday. “Dick is why there’s a Hormel at all.”

According to Ray, Knowlton almost single-handedly kept the plant in Austin, convincing Hormel’s board of directors to build a roughly $100-million, state-of-the-art facility here when they needed to replace the old one.

Lesser known is Knowlton’s competitiveness, Ray said.

“He’s a very passionate individual,” he said. “Many people don’t realize how competitive he is. He wants to win.”

Knowlton oversaw Hormel during a rough period, and he had to make some tough decisions, but he was also responsible for incredible growth when many other meatpackers were faltering and even closing. When Knowlton stepped down as CEO, Ray said, the company’s annual earnings per share had grown by about 20 percent.

Yes, Hormel already had Spam and other brands still iconic today, but as Ray puts it, “Hormel was a smaller player before Knowlton.”

As Ray said it, without Knowlton, Austin may be a very different place. Without the plant, Austin would not have the 1,740 employees currently working there, or the 1,300 at Quality Pork Processors, or either’s families, but it also may not have much of the indirect business associated with having a Fortune 500 company’s meatpacking plant in town.

Austin would not be what it is today without Knowlton. The road he grew up near now bears his name. But his lasting legacy to those who know the full context of his story shouldn’t be the strike, but that Hormel is thriving in Austin, and possibly here at all, because of him.

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