Gary Ray: Part of the Hormel story

Paul Stevens

Working the night security shift at the old Hormel meat-packing plant in Fort Dodge, Gary Ray would have been hard-pressed to imagine that one day he would:

Work through four more positions in the Fort Dodge plant, before it closed in 1981, transfer to Hormel corporate offices in Austin, Minnesota, and work in five more positions before retiring in 2008 as the No. 2 executive in the 126-year-old company, now called Hormel Foods;

Move into chairmanship of the $8.5 billion Hormel Foundation, which owns 48 percent of the shares of Hormel Foods and contributes mightily to the well-being of residents of Mower County and Austin, a city of 25,000 in southern Minnesota;

And be in a position with his wife of 45 years, Pat, to make what he calls “a worthwhile contribution” to the Hormel Institute, a leading cancer research institution located in Austin and operated by the University of Minnesota, with significant support from the Mayo Clinic.

The Ray Live Learning Center, a $4.5 million facility, was dedicated in 2016. It is a place, Ray said, “where institute scientists can conference worldwide and share their research with sister labs in China and South Korea, so they can collaborate worldwide.”

The Rays were reticent for their names to denote their many contributions to parts of the Hormel Institute’s latest expansion, spokeswoman Gail Dennison said at the time of the dedication, but Institute staff convinced them otherwise. “We convinced them that not only was it a good idea, but that we needed their support … the Institute is looking at what it is that can stop and prevent cancer that is healthier than chemotherapy and radiation.”

The center’s 250-seat auditorium provides state-of-the-art communications technology and a large multipurpose center outside the theater. It also provided needed space for Institute staff to meet in one location. The Institute staff numbers about 120 but is expected to grow to about 250 in future years.

The Rays also donated a sculpture added to the front lawn as part of the expansion, named “Ray of Hope.” Said Pat at the time of the donation, “The sculpture is our way of highlighting the unique work of The Hormel Institute, in looking for natural compounds to prevent and treat cancer. This indeed is a gift of hope that answers to cancer will be found through the dedicated research of Institute scientists.”

“I’ve always had an interest to help find a cure for cancer,” Ray said, “and I am convinced it has to be a worldwide effort to find the answer.”

Ray was born in Atlantic and moved to Fort Dodge with his parents, Ivan and Cleone Ray, in 1958 when Ivan was named sales manager of Pan O Gold Baking Co., later purchased by Metz Baking Co. He retired as an area sales manager when he was in his 70s. Ivan, who served with the Marines in World War II, died in 2010, two years after Cleone passed away. Cleone was known to many in Fort Dodge for her work as a hostess and waitress at the Elks Club, a job she held into her 80s.

“The work ethic I learned in Fort Dodge has carried me through my whole career,” Ray said. “It comes by example. People working downright hard. My mom and dad were workaholics. My mom loved being around people.”

Ray attended Corpus Christi School and St. Edmond High School, where he excelled in football and played other sports. He graduated from St. Edmond in 1964.

“One of my favorite memories of growing up in Fort Dodge was going to Dodger Stadium — the atmosphere and the surroundings,” he said. “I just loved that. I still remember the baseball field and the brick wall in the outfield with ivy growing on the walls. Just like Wrigley Field.”

Through high school and after attending Wayne State (Nebraska) College, Ray worked part-time jobs at Gus Glaser’s Meats, Lehigh Brick and Tile, and Iowa Beef. He applied for work at Hormel’s Fort Dodge plant in 1968 and was hired to work on the night security force, responsible for the security of the plant and checking in all visitors into the plant for clearance.

He moved into supervisory jobs — night sanitation, grocery products, smoked meats department, and cut and kill. All along, Ray said, he had a goal of working in the corporate offices.

“I was able to work all different facets of the operation before moving into the corporate office,” he said. “I was bound and determined to be in the corporate office to seek new roles in the company. I recognized the stability of the company. It’s a company that promotes from within — and it still does that today.”

Not long after starting work in Fort Dodge, Ray drove to Cedar Falls for a weekend visit with Kent Osboe, a Fort Dodge friend who was attending the University of Northern Iowa. There, Ray met Pat Streit, a student from Sheldon on a blind date and in 1972 they were married in Sheldon.

While Gary worked nights at the Fort Dodge Hormel plant, Pat first taught in the Rockwell City school system and then taught at North Junior High and Fort Dodge Senior High. Her brother, Dan Streit, who works in financial services in Fort Dodge, is currently the boys golf coach at St. Edmond. When the Rays moved to Austin, Pat taught in nearby Lyle, Minnesota.

In the corporate offices, Ray oversaw operations for the grocery products division, manufacturing operations for the entire company, marketing and sales functions for retail and fresh pork, processed pork and food-service sales and marketing, and was responsible for Jennie-O turkey company, in addition to hog procurement and refrigerated processing. 

Ray said that then-Hormel president and Chief Executive Officer Dick Knowlton, whose career paralleled his own in climbing the ladder from the bottom up, told him, “I’m going to cross pollinate you, put you in as many divisions as I can, because I think you have some potential for the future.”

“Being from a small town,” Ray said, “I learned how to make relationships with people and to be able to communicate with people. Working in the Fort Dodge plant, it was a team effort. That carried over to corporate. I recognized it really takes a team effort of all employees to make things successful. I still believe that today. Integrity is really an important thing in today’s lifestyle.”

“One of favorite experiences, looking back on my career, was going over to China to help start two manufacturing plants, in the early ’90s. All you saw was bicycles on the street. I watched China grow during the years until now. Another was in 1994 when I was selected by President George H.W. Bush as one of 10 to go with the Secretary of Agriculture to Russia. I spent three weeks in Russia, learning ways we might help Russians in agriculture.”

Ray was 62 when he retired from Hormel Foods in 2008. At the time, he was president of Hormel Foods’ protein division, including refrigerated products.

Today, at the top of the Rays’ list is making frequent visits to the homes of their children, Conrad and McKenzie, and their six granddaughters.

Conrad has been the head golf coach for 13 years at Stanford University, where his teams have won one NCAA national title and six Pac-12 Conference titles. He was a standout athlete in football, hockey and golf in high school and was a member of the Stanford University golf team that included PGA legend Tiger Woods, Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay and Casey Martin, now golf coach at the University of Oregon. Conrad and his wife Jennifer live in Redwood City, California, with their daughters Ella, Emerson and Jullian.

Asked if he could compete in golf with his son, Ray said, “He went by me in the eighth grade.”

McKenzie and her husband Jeff Sloan live in Decatur, Illinois, with their three daughters — Lulla, Phoebe and Greta. Like her mother, McKenzie is a school teacher, a graduate of the University of Colorado. She competed in volleyball and basketball in high school.

Ray spends two days a week at the Hormel Foundation, which he has chaired for six years. Representatives of 12 nonprofit organizations — the YMCA, Salvation Army, Austin public school system, to name a few — sit on the foundation board and allocate $8 million to $25 million a year to the Austin and Mower County area. Austin is in the midst of building a $35 million community center – to which the Hormel Foundation has pledged $25 million, Ray said.

The foundation was founded in 1941 by George A. Hormel and his son Jay C. Hormel, Ray said at the time of the foundation’s 75th anniversary in 2016. “There were five board members and the first donation was $10.  Since then we’ve grown far beyond what even the Hormels probably imagined, but in some ways we do things just like we did 75 years ago.  We invest in projects and programs that deliver real benefits, that help real people, and that make a real impact in our community.  The people who make those decisions live and work here, have their roots here, and share the same commitment to Austin that the Hormels demonstrated.”

Ray said his advice to younger people in today’s job market: “Honesty and integrity are two key elements that you need to possess.”