Richard L. Knowlton, Former Hormel Foods CEO, Dies At 86

February 4, 2019 02:53 PM
Under Richard Knowlton’s leadership, Hormel Foods moved from a commodities-based meat processor to a multinational food company known for innovation and value-added products for the changing consumer.

Richard Lyle Knowlton lost his hard-fought battle from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on Feb. 1, 2019. He was a man of vision, family, community and knew the importance of hard work, honesty and determination to overcome obstacles.

Knowlton was born June 9, 1932, in Austin, Minn., to Lyle and Rosella Knowlton, just two blocks from the Hormel packing plant. He graduated from Austin High School in 1950 and from the University of Colorado with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954.

Knowlton worked for Hormel Foods in the summers during high school and college and joined the company in 1954 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.

In 1963, Knowlton advanced to manager of route car division sales at the Austin Plant, and in 1967 was promoted to route car division sales manager for the company’s meat products division. He was named assistant manager of the Austin Plant in April 1969 and named general manager in August of that year.

Knowlton was named vice president of the operations group and elected to the company’s Board of Directors in September 1974. He was promoted to group vice president of the operations group in 1975 and was also named a member of the executive committee. In 1979, Knowlton was named president and chief operations officer, and in 1981 was named chief executive officer and chairman of the board. He retired from role of chief executive officer in 1993 and chairman in 1995.

Under Knowlton’s leadership, Hormel Foods broadened its offerings and moved from 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 at the time. Knowlton’s 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.

During a 13-year period (1979-1992) as president and 12 years (1981-1993) as chief executive officer, Knowlton’s vision led Hormel Foods from a company with sales of $1.4 billion to a financial leader with sales approaching $3 billion, record-setting net earnings and unprecedented stock performance.

Beginning with his tenure as president, Hormel Foods gained in financial strength as evidenced by a doubling of dollar sales, a record 10 consecutive years of improved net earnings, four two-for-one stock splits, yearly increases in cash dividends and an approximate 1,000 percent increase in market value of the corporation’s common stock.

Knowlton served as chairman of the board of The Hormel Foundation from 1995 to 2009, distributing more than $87 million for projects to benefit the Austin community and was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame in 2010. He also 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 served on several corporate boards, including 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, Mo. He was also an advisor to the president of the Mayo Clinic.

Dick left his mark on both the community of Austin as well as so many people throughout his life time. Dick had great vision and raised over $87 million in funding for projects to benefit the Austin community. He additionally raised the funding for the Dal Ward Athletic Center at University of Colorado. Dick has provided mentoring and financial resources for so many deserving students to attend college. He wrote the book ‘Points of Difference: Transforming Hormel’ which has been used in College Business Leadership classes and enjoyed by many.

Knowlton is survived by his wife Nancy and their five children Scott, Kim, Claudia, David and Julie.

Memorials may be designated to the Alzheimer’s Association, Eisenhower Medical Center, Vail Health, Mayo Foundation, University of Colorado.

Knowlton’s legacy of innovation will continue to inspire others.

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