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Guided by the pursuit of continuous improvement, rooted in quality and innovation and possessing a collaborative spirit, the R&D team at Hormel Foods seeks new ways to bring flavorful, healthful and satisfying products to consumers, just as the company has for 119 years.
Product development at the Austin, Minn.-based company means nurturing 75-year-old iconic brands (Hormel chili, Dinty Moore stew, Spam) while developing leading-edge processes to support new ones (shelf-stable Compleats dinners, Natural Choice meats).
With so many brands, the R&D team has mega product development responsibilities and works on up to 300 projects at any one time. "We either lead or support development across the company," says Phillip Minerich, vice president of research & development. He says about 80 percent of Hormel Foods products in the marketplace are developed through his team. "We do have some fully owned subsidiaries with more targeted and intimate R&D groups such as Jennie-O Turkey Store, Century Foods International and Diamond Crystal Brands," he explains, "But our team supports the entire corporation when it comes to technical innovations, food sciences and food safety interventions."
Accomplishments abound for the team, which recently developed and brought to market innovative new products that have influenced the food industry at large, including:
Collaboration is a primary reason for the team's success. "When someone talks about R&D, they are really talking about a number of teams," explains Minerich.
"We have 110 employees in our R&D group, including 60 scientists and 50 support technicians broken down into various teams -- sensory analysis and shelf life testing, package development, process authorities, product and process development, applied research, chemistry, microbiology and analytical labs, and regulatory compliance and technical services.
"They all have very special technical skill sets that come as a package deal. It is a collaborative team response. The variety and diversity of projects we work on keep us in touch with science and technologies across the whole food science realm," he says.
R&D is charged with product development, packaging development, line extensions, exploratory science and new technology applications, food safety interventions, problem solving and cost reductions. Minerich emphasizes the cross functional effort, not only within R&D, but across the corporation is the biggest strength of Hormel Foods. "Every project involves R&D, operations, engineering, marketing, purchasing, quality control and our suppliers," he says. "That gives us many insights and taps us into different expertise, so we can identify opportunities within opportunities when we develop projects."
Minerich has seven direct reports, and each manages significant areas. "My management style is what I call the TOTL (task-oriented time limited) approach," he says. "That focuses the team on what they are tasked to do, what their responsibilities are, and what they are accountable for, from the start through the end of the project. This is not an academic model; time is money and the only time we make money is when we take product to market.
"All the responsibility and accountability is built on trust and encourages the freedom to explore and be creative. One of our team members, Dan Hirst, is a trained leader in Edward de Bono lateral thinking training, which makes remarkable use of several skills that encourage not only out-of-the-box thinking, but removing the box barriers entirely. Everyone in R&D and many in the corporate office have been trained in this program."
With Hormel Foods for 34 years, Minerich credits all his past managers for contributing to his management style. "My predecessor, Forrest Dryden, was here recently celebrating the retirement of an 82-year-old employee, Pauline Bailey, who was with the company for 33 1/2 years," he says. "Her age is unique, but her commitment and years spent with the company are not unique. It is not unusual within Hormel to have 30, 35 or even 40-year careers here. Because of that, we tend to focus on building teams, bridges and collaborations. I know five years from now I will fundamentally have the same team as I have today."
It's de rigueur to advocate cross-functional teams, but it ensures projects are considered from all angles throughout the entire process, and it works well for Hormel Foods. "We meet a lot," says Minerich. "An intern in our packaging group told me he loves the culture at Hormel because you meet face to face with people, and can get things done much more quickly. Our corporate office is located just across the parking lot from R&D, and the path between them is well worn."
Billion Dollar Challenge
"Our CEO Jeff Ettinger challenged our team with the Billion Dollar Challenge -- between 2000-2009, he wanted to add $1 billion of sales from products that did not exist before," recalls Minerich. "We reached the goal two years early, in 2007." During those eight years, overall sales grew 80 percent, to $6.1 billion, with 37 percent of that growth from products that didn't exist before 2000.
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