To say it’s unusual for an executive to be working in different divisions of the same company for 25 years, then named head of a company subsidiary, while having no work experience in that area at all, is probably an understatement. Yet, that’s certainly the case for Jody Horner, president and CEO of Cargill Meat Solutions in Wichita, Kan., a position she’s held since November 2008. And by all indications, she’s moving the company along on a successful path, despite a down economy and many other challenges facing the meat industry.

Horner has spent her entire career at the huge Minneapolis-based Cargill, but never worked in the meat industry before her 2008 appointment, replacing another Cargill veteran, Bill Rupp. But she is part of a growing number of women who have become leaders in the meat industry. Before coming to Cargill Meat Solutions, she was president of Cargill Salt. She began working at the company in 1984, doing commodity trading. She also held positions in Cargill Flour Milling and has been involved in the company’s human resources department; its risk management division; commodity and grain trading; corporate strategy and business development group; and was involved in Cargill’s corporate diversity efforts.

She was educated at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics, and got her Master’s in Business Administration at the Univ. of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business. Horner is married and has two teenage children. She sat down withMeat&Poultryrecently to reflect on the first 20 months in her newest position. She also discussed how her latest leadership role is evolving and how she plans to keep Cargill among the industry’s mostrespected and successful meat-processing companies.

Meat&Poultry:Why have you stayed at Cargill during your entire career?

Jody Horner:One thing the company stresses is giving the company’s leaders the chance to grow and develop. And that’s been my experience here. Working at Cargill for more than 25 years has given me the chance to understand all the businesses in the company and how they operate. By staying at one company for a long period of time, instead of jumping around from place to place, you’re able to focus on the company’s leadership model. My peers and I have been at Cargill for a long time, and we’ve been able to grow professionally. As an example, my first job involved buying wheat. I worked in a number of Cargill locations, including upstate New York, California and Salt Lake City, Utah. Each day I learn more about Cargill and how it operates. It’s been a great experience for me.

M&P:Has your career taken any unusual turns?

JH:After I went back and got my MBA, I made a funky career move: I worked in human resources. It was the best move I ever made. People are the most important part of a company, and HR is working with people. In HR, you see everything through a different kind of lens. I stayed in HR for eight years. Working with people in that way was a very valuable experience for me. Then I decided to go back into the “business” part of the business. I then got into the salt business, and now I’m in meat.

M&P:What was the benefit of working with people and then the business side of the company?

JH:I was able to put those two things – people and business – together. The opportunity came in 2006, when I became president of Cargill Salt. There, I had to run the business, but also work with the executives as well as the other people who work for the company . And I think you have to do that when you run a company. There are always those two things – the people you work with and then the technical part of the business itself.

M&P:How does your diverse background at Cargill help you to lead the company?

JH:Those experiences help not only me, but all of us, to connect with our customers and clients. If I can bring
the power of financial risk management to a retail meat customer of our company, we can provide better solutions and products for that customer and what they need. Even though it’s a tradition at Cargill for many people to spend their entire career at our company, there are a large number of people who have not worked their entire career at Cargill. I’ve also been involved in a lot of board work, where you learn a great deal, as well as visiting many beef facilities ever since starting here with the beef business. I’ve learned a lot and am continuing to learn.

M&P:How do you use your business philosophy and personality to lead the company? What in your business training and experience have you been able to apply here at Cargill Meat Solutions so far, and how might it impact the future goals?

JH:My biggest strength is my experience from more than 25 years at Cargill. My business philosophy and personality is based on the experience I’ve gained from understanding this corporation at large, and comes from the many and diverse things I’ve done over those years, including instituting “best practices” in every position I’ve held. A business leader needs to be a learner constantly. I try to practice what Eric Hoffer wrote about a great deal: ‘Learners will inherit the Earth that is coming, but knowers will inherit a world that no longer exists.”

During my career, I’ve always felt people were the most important part of the company’s success. There’s a great book I read called “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, where he asked the question: “Can a good company become a great company, and if so, how?” The secret of these great companies is a corporate culture that found and promoted disciplined people to think and act in a disciplined manner. The first priority is to find the right people, get them on board, and then get them into the right roles in the company. That’s what I believe is important and that’s what I try to do – find the right people who will make the company work, and then get them involved in doing the right things to move the company along. I’ve always wanted to start with engaged employees. If we get the people right, then we can go from there and be successful.

The other thing I’ve benefited and learned from is Cargill’s leadership model. Positions of responsibility all across the country and in different Cargill companies and divisions are not unusual; in fact, they’re quite common at Cargill. People are moved around, given new challenges and new opportunities all the time. By working at Cargill all this time, I know the company very well, how it operates and what its goals are.

M&P:What are your weaknesses as an executive that you’re working on improving?

JH:The fact I didn’t grow up in the meat business and never worked in the meat industry before. There are days I feel this a great deal by working with people in our company who grew up in this industry. I’ve felt challenged by that. But I’ve been learning about this industry from those very same people, who are extremely generous in sharing their knowledge and experience with me. I’ve been learning about the industry ever since I started here in Wichita. I’ve been traveling a great deal to see different facilities in the meat industry. And as I said, moving around to different types of businesses and learning a great deal along the way has been a strong part of the Cargill business philosophy for a long time. Learning is a very important part of becoming a good executive and leader.

M&P:What did you learn in your upbringing and moral training that you are able to apply at Cargill to make it a better company for all, including employees, fellow executives and consumers in areas where Cargill operates. Does morality play a role in how you run the company?

JH:Yes, it does. My brother, who was a teacher, passed away a few months ago. He told me I should always focus on the individual people who work for me and not look at them as a group of employees. He said to me, “What you do for a group will be forgotten, but what you do for an individual will never be forgotten.” So a high priority for me, as part of my leadership, is to make sure people who work for me are appreciated and recognized, rather than being forgotten or overlooked.

M&P:Many people who work outside the industry tend to have a negative view of big corporations as being anti-environment, not concerned about using energy wisely and preserving the Earth’s resources. How do you feel about the increased emphasis on sustainability and the environment? What are Cargill and other companies in the industry doing to work with environmental interests that don’t see the world the way meat processors do, for example?

JH:We have a number of concerns about the environment and feel strongly that we as industry managers play a strong role to make sure our companies do as much as possible to ensure we don’t harm it, and, in fact, preserve it. We’ve been able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than one million tons. We’ve been making a very strong effort to reduce both water and paper use. Even what you’d think are simple actions, like making sure water hoses aren’t allowed to trickle, makes a big difference over the long run in the amount of water we use – and waste. But the bigger picture is, the industry is paying more attention to the environment. We’re concerned about reducing our carbon footprint in the world.

M&P:How does your company deal with the concerns about illegal immigration, including efforts to prevent the employment of illegal immigrants by Cargill and other large corporations?

JH:We have a belief – it is critical we employ only documented legal workers, people who have the legal right to be in the United States. We use the E-Verify system and outside consultants. We want to continue leading the way in hiring only legal people. We participate voluntarily in the government’s Basic Pilot program, an Internet system matching names and Social Security numbers, and volunteered for the photo screen system. We do background checks and ask employees to explain problems brought to our attention by the government by “no match” letters, for example. But we need to be able to reform immigration so the country’s growing employment needs can be met.