Former Hormel CEO Richard Knowlton Dies

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Former Hormel CEO Richard Knowlton Dies

Richard Knowlton

Richard Knowlton, former chairman, president and CEO of Hormel Foods, has passed away. He was 86.

One of the most iconic and inspiring executives of the Austin, Minn.-based food processor, Knowlton served in many roles at the company for more than four decades, beginning full-time in 1954 following summers in high school and college working for the company.

Born June 9, 1932, in Austin, Knowlton graduated from the University of Colorado with a B.A. degree in 1954, right before joining Hormel as merchandising manager in Fremont, Neb., while serving two years as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. In April 1959, he transferred to Austin and was appointed manager of the Minnesota route car division.

He progressed into a number of roles at the Austin plant during the following years, including manager of route car division sales in 1963, route car division manager for the meat products division in 1967, and assistant manager – soon after general manager – of the plant in 1969.

Knowlton later became VP of the operations group and was elected to the board in 1974, becoming group VP of operations the following year. And four years later, in 1979, he became the new president and COO, moving into the CEO and chairman roles two years later, in 1981. He retired from those two roles in 1993 and 1995, respectively.

Under his leadership, Hormel Foods expanded its offerings and moved from being a commodities-based meat processor to a highly diversified multinational consumer foods company known for its innovation and value-added products for the changing consumer lifestyles. His willingness to create an environment that encouraged entrepreneurial risk-taking led to the introduction of many pioneering products, including shelf-stable, microwaveable foods for adults and children; an extensive line of 97 percent fat-free products; and fresh, health-oriented foods uniquely packaged for convenience and quick preparation.

Under his tenure as president and CEO, Knowlton's vision for Hormel grew the company from $1.4 billion to $3 billion, record-setting net earnings and unprecedented stock performance. Hormel gained in financial strength a record 10 consecutive years of improved net earnings.

Knowlton also was known for his philanthropy, serving as chairman of the Hormel Foundation from 1995 to 2009, distributing more than $87 million for projects to benefit the Austin community. He was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame in 2010 and received many awards for his leadership, including Carnegie Mellon’s Outstanding Crisis Manager of the Year in 1987, the Anti-Defamation League’s Man of Achievement Award in 1990, and the Industry Advancement Award by the American Meat Institute in 1993. He was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009.

Knowlton also served on several corporate boards, including those of U.S. Bancorp, Supervalu and ING America Insurance Holdings. He was chairman emeritus of the Horatio Alger Association and served on the boards of the Eisenhower Medical Center, Leeds Business School at the University of Colorado and FutureFuel Chemical Company in St. Louis. He was also an advisor to the president of the Mayo Clinic.

Knowlton is survived by his wife Nancy and their five children Scott, Kim, Claudia, David and Julie. Arrangements will be communicated when they are known.