February 7, 2007

Hormel

And the man behind the brand is...
George Hormel

Meat-packing was in George Hormel's blood. After several false starts Hormel finally settled into his life's work, establishing a reputation for innovative meat products that continues today. In an 18-month period during the late 1980s the Hormel Company introduced 134 new products.

George Hormel was born in Buffalo in 1860 before moving to Toledo, Ohio where his father opened a tannery. His mother came from an immigrant meat-packing family and at age 15 George left to work in his uncle's butcher business in Chicago. His health failed however, forcing Hormel back to Ohio.

The convalescing youth filled out his 6'2" frame and after stints in his father's tannery and a railroad yard he set out for Kansas City to seek his fortune. Hormel found a job as a wool-buyer calling on accounts in dusty frontier towns in the upper midwest. He was especially fond of the northern-most town in his territory, Austin, Minnesota. Here Hormel spent much of his leisure time joining several recreation clubs.

His Kansas City company failed and Hormel landed in Chicago as a hide buyer. On a trip to visit friends in Austin in 1887 he learned of a butcher shop which had been damaged by fire. With $500 borrowed from his employer Hormel joined a friend in refurbishing the building into a retail meat market and pork packing business.

After a disagreement over the direction of the business the partnership dissolved in 1891 and George opened the Hormel Provision Market. The next year in a small grove of oak trees along the Red Cedar River Hormel converted an old creamery into a packing house. George handled the production of sausage, hams and bacon himself. The first year he slaughtered 610 hogs.

Hormel poured every dollar of profit back into his business. Output increased to 2532 hogs in 1893 and soon he controlled most of the meat market in the region. That year large Chicago packers introduced improved refrigerator cars which allowed them to sell and deliver product in faraway communities, virtually eliminating competition from small midwest packers. All but four of several hundred packers west of the Mississippi closed their shops.

Hormel decided he needed more and better products to survive. He concentrated on a superior sausage which became popular locally and in 1895 he introduced the first of his company's new products - "Hormel's Sugar-Cured Pig Back Bacon", known today as Canadian bacon.

Before 1900 ice plants were non-existent. Meat shops butchered fresh beef and pork mostly on demand. This constricting system was inadequate for Hormel's ambitious operation. He installed an ice storage plant with ice cut in 18-inch slabs from the frozen Red Cedar. The business expanded rapidly and in 1899 Hormel sent for his father and three brothers to join him in the business. Their arrival allowed George Hormel to put down his cleaver forever.

Hormel's own son, Jay, returned from World War I to join the firm and uncovered a scandal that rocked the Hormel Packing Company. An assistant controller had embezzled $1,187,000 leaving the company short of funds to pay three million dollars in bank notes. Hormel's integrity won him extensions that kept the business afloat.

He aggressively restructured the organization and in 1926, the year George Hormel retired from active management of the company, he introduced "Hormel Flavor-Sealed Ham", America's first canned ham. Hormel added Dinty Moore beef stew in 1935 and canned chili in 1936 to the product line.

In 1937 Hormel developed a spiced ham and ground pork product destined for pop culture immortality. Because the canned meat included shoulder meat it couldn't be called ham. Hormel sponsored a contest to name the new meat. The winner received $1100 and SPAM entered American lexicon. It became a World War II staple and though roundly ridiculed it sold one billion cans in its first 20 years.

Hormel withstood a bitter labor strike in 1933 when disgruntled employees armed with clubs physically removed Jay Hormel from his office and threatened to shut off the plant's refrigeration system endangering millions of pounds of meat. A compromise was reached in three days and Hormel subsequently became a leader in innovative labor relations policies. When George Hormel died in 1946 the company he founded in 1892 by dressing 610 hogs was processing 5000 hogs a day.

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