1992 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"On the edge of the ravine, you always find the most beautiful flowers. We guide our business by that principle—taking well-placed risks is essential."
Born in 1932 in Austin, Minnesota, Richard Knowlton was third in a family of seven children. His father was a life-long employee of the nearby Hormel Company. Knowlton also worked at the plant from the age of 16. He told his father he was thinking of quitting school because he felt good about the money he was making at Hormel, but his father encouraged him to finish his education.
An excellent student in high school, Knowlton was a member of the National Honor Society. His skills in football won him a scholarship to the University of Colorado. Upon graduation, he received an offer to play professional football, but instead chose to return to Hormel, where he had worked every summer.
Following a steady line of promotions, Knowlton was elected president of Hormel in 1979, followed by appointments as chief executive officer and chairman. In January 1996, he completed his 48-year career with Hormel Foods Corporation, and has stayed on as chairman of the Hormel Foundation. Knowlton is the only food company CEO to ever receive all three of the highest awards in his industry. Recently, the Knowlton Award was established in his name to annually recognize the person who has made the best and most innovative contributions to the food industry.
Proud of his Horatio Alger Award, Knowlton says, "My passion for Horatio Alger is one that continues to grow." Knowlton has served on the Horatio Alger Board of Directors for a number of years, most recently as chairman. "My interest and commitment to Horatio Alger has intensified," he says. "Education needs have reached new dimensions. One of the most satisfying accomplishments with the Association has been the dramatic increase in the number and amount of scholarships we award. This is one of the most gratifying aspects of my involvement with the Horatio Alger Association."
When advising youth, Knowlton says, "Establish work and social habits that form a strong value system within. Later, that foundation will provide a sound basis for the thousands of decisions and choices you have to make along the way. Always remember, it's the little things you do that make up who you are as a person. Leaders should be measured by how well they serve their people, both in the workplace as well as in the community."
Knowlton believes it was his strong value system that got him through a difficult time at Hormel, when the casualty rate in the industry was nearly 100 percent. To survive, he restructured the company and guided Hormel each step of the way, using what he calls "points of difference" to help his company succeed when others were failing. "Always believe you can make a difference," he says. "Always search for a better way. Establish those qualities that are so much a part of you that it guides you in every situation."