Richard Lyle Knowlton, former chairman, president and CEO of Hormel Foods, died Feb. 1, 2019 at age 86.
He was born June 9, 1932 in Austin, Minnesota, two blocks from the Hormel meat packing plant, to Lyle and Rosella (Bothun) Knowlton. Knowlton’s father worked for the Hormel Co. weighing livestock, and he started working at Hormel at age 16, performing a variety of jobs throughout the Austin plant.
Knowlton earned a football scholarship at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he majored in geography and economics and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1954. He met his future wife, Nancy VanDerbur, while at CU, and they married Nov. 3, 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, Nebraska, 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 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 CEO and chairman of the board. He retired from role of CEO 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 (1979-92) as president and 12 years (1981-93) as CEO, 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 raised more than $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. He provided mentoring and financial resources for 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. He was a key member of numerous boards.
Knowlton was survived by his wife, Nancy; five children, Scott (Andrea Biller), Kimberly Heymann, Claudia (Anthony) Knowlton-Chike, David (Teri) Knowlton, and Julie (Rich) Wham; grandchildren, Kari Larrañaga, Missy Freund, Sarah Heymann, Ashley D’Onofrio, Zach Chike, Julian Chike, Chris Chike, Justin Knowlton, Korina Knowlton, Dawson Knowlton, Charlie Wham, Coco Wham; great grandchildren, Linnea, Christian, Beth, Rosie Larrañaga, Kaitlyn and Riley Freund, Adalyn, Alaria, Haddon, Kendrick, Cameron Chike, Victoria and Lexi D’Onofrio; sister, Carol Warfield; two brothers, Gary and Bob (Joan) Knowlton; many nieces and nephews; and caregiver, Boyd Williams.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Lyle and Rosella Knowlton; sisters, Susan Knowlton, Marjorie Anderson, Mary Jane Knowlton; and sister-in-law, Mary Knowlton.
Memorials may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, Eisenhower Medical Center, Vail Health, Mayo Foundation and University of Colorado.