When I began my career in food-trade publishing as business editor for Prepared Foods magazine in 1980, one of the first companies I conducted corporate interviews at was Austin, Minn.-based Geo. A. Hormel & Co., which, of course, has since changed its name to Hormel Foods Corp. V. Allan Krejci, former vice president of Hormel public relations and long-time company veteran who retired 11 years ago, set up the interviews.

I was very nervous. After all, I was scheduled to interview industry icon Richard Knowlton — who was the company’s chief executive officer from 1979 to 1993; president from 1979 to 1992, and chairman from 1979 to 1995 — to get an update on the company’s financial performance plus receive information on the new flagship plant being built across I-90.

Krejci and I visited the construction site later in the day on a cold, winter afternoon, after the corporate interviews were completed. We struggled to walk in our dress shoes, suits and trench coats flapping in the gusty wind atop stones, foundation concrete and frozen mud as daylight began to slip away. Krejci enthusiastically pointed to different areas of the construction site while we walked explaining what was being built where. He advised me to take careful notes because once the new plant opened, writers would never be allowed inside.

Now here it is more than 31 years later and I’m happy to report I finally got to tour this plant two months ago for the first time. The purpose of my visit was to field a cover story about the 1.1 million-sq.-ft. flagship plant’s 30th anniversary (which officially takes place in September) plus the 75th anniversary of SPAM for the June issue of MEAT&POULTRY magazine. My hosts were extremely open about the plant’s operations and successes.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to visit this facility, but it was well worth the wait. For those not familiar with this complex, it is six plants under one roof — dry sausage, meat products, grocery products (canning), shipping warehouse, harvest and fabrication plus a large refinery operation — all connected by common passageways. Products produced at the Austin complex represent approximately one-eighth of the annual product volume produced by the entire company. The Austin plant employs approximately 1,750 people and it is loaded with cutting-edge technology.

While much of the technology is nothing less than extraordinary, 38-year company veteran Bruce Schweitzer, vice president of operations, Refrigerated Foods, with oversight of 14 Hormel Foods refrigerated food plants, including Austin, and also president of PFFJ, LLC — Farm Operations, couldn’t praise the Austin plant’s workers enough.

“If you want to talk about what has been the success of the Hormel Austin plant the last 30 years, it’s our people,” insisted Schweitzer, who recently retired at the end of April. “That is what has made Hormel Foods successful.”

He also mentioned that Knowlton, as well as Jeffrey Ettinger, current Hormel Foods chairman, president and CEO, were very similar and transparent regarding their deep admiration and respect for all Hormel Foods employees. “You can’t fake that,” Schweitzer said... and he’s right. I could see this while looking into the eyes of all employees I met. Although several were shy, all had a firm grip while shaking hands, smiled and were genuinely enthusiastic when discussing their tenure and roles at the massive complex.

One thing made perfectly clear to me during the Austin plant tour is the mutual admiration that is genuinely shared by everyone I met including Schweitzer; Tim Fritz, Austin plant manager; Brandon Koehler, leader supervisor of dry sausage; Dan Lilly, new smokehouse operator and former blend system operator; Matt Wenzel, supervisor of the smokehouse department, Jim Nelson, slicer operator in dry sausage packaging; and Rod Ryks, chairman of the safety committee and an employee in the ham boning department, among others. Each person credited teamwork and working closely together for the Austin facility’s continuing success plus its outstanding worker-safety record.

“Everybody pulls together...it’s all about working together,” Ryks said.

(For operations, technology and product highlights on Hormel Foods flagship Austin, Minn., plant, don’t miss MEAT&POULTRY’S revealing cover story in the June issue.)