AUSTIN, Minn. – Tom Lang makes the 25-mile drive across southern Minnesota’s dark and windswept Interstate 90 for the same event every January. He has been coming to it from Clarks Grove for 30 years.
Gaylen and Phyllis Lastine of Austin have been in attendance for 24 years. And while Everett Jensen may have taken a seven-year break to winter in Florida, he was back Tuesday night, sitting in the fifth row of the Austin High School auditorium for Hormel Foods Corp.’s annual shareholder meeting.
Such meetings, a formality required by securities regulators, are often dull affairs conducted in the conference rooms of hotels or law firms in New York or California. But Hormel always stages its meeting in its hometown, and its executives regularly remind folks they are here to stay.
“We always refer to it as the social event of the year in Austin,” Jim Snee, Hormel’s chief executive, said before taking the stage. “To have so many shareholders who are local residents come out and hear all the great things that are happening.”
The first Austin shareholder meeting was in 1928 at Hormel’s office. The company moved the meeting to the high school, the only venue big enough to hold everyone, in 1963.
Gaylen Lastine remembers in the 1940s and 1950s when people would show up in high heels and fancy gowns at the meeting. “They’d go out to eat before hand. It was this big event,” he said.
While Dansko shoes now outnumber high heels, and jean jackets are more plentiful than suit coats, the fervor in the auditorium is alive and well.
On his way backstage, Snee heartily hugs an employee standing guard in the hallway and then greets a female officer working security. As the auditorium fills with stockholders of every age, from young mothers with their babies to the elderly in their wheelchairs, the high school’s 20-person chamber orchestra, La Fiera String Ensemble, plays classical suites. This is its largest audience of the year.
“We look forward to it every year,” orchestra teacher Gene Schott said. “There’s a lot of movers and shakers out there, and not only in the city of Austin but from throughout the world. So we like to show off our stuff.”
Snee’s son even played cello in the ensemble for three years before graduating last spring. Snee’s daughter is currently a member of the ninth-grade orchestra.
In the next room, overflow seating covers the gymnasium floor inscribed with the high school’s mascot — the Packers — a tribute to the city’s meatpacking history.
Many of Hormel’s peer companies, Snee said, have stripped the luster from their shareholder meetings.
Making it an event is important to the company, he said. Owning stock is a prerequisite to attend the meeting, and a large majority of the audience are local residents.
“Even though they are in the community, they don’t get to see the inner workings of the company each and every day,” Snee said. “They are our neighbors, they are our friends, but we don’t always get into strategic business discussions. Like an investor in New York, they want to hear what’s on our minds, they want to hear what’s on our dockets.”
Shortly after the high school orchestra members scattered from the stage, Jeffrey Ettinger, the company’s chairman, called a shareholder vote to approve the new board members. As the ballots are tabulated, Snee told the story of Hormel’s year. And it was a good one. Hormel achieved record sales of $9.5 billion and record earnings of $1.64 per share in 2016.
But Snee quickly pivoted to the future, making clear Hormel plans to innovate and adapt to the swiftly changing marketplace. While the company is known for Spam meats, he emphasized the company’s focus on multicultural, convenient and healthy foods.
He staged a video chat with executives from Herdez del Fuerte, a Mexico City-based food company that Hormel partners with on a line of U.S. products. A Herdez leader got a chuckle out of the audience when he waved farewell, saying, “Hasta la vista, amigos!” Snee also piped in Justin Gold, the founder of Justin’s, a Boulder, Colo.-based maker of nut butters and candies that Hormel acquired last year. Gold spoke to the crowd while peddling in place on a cruiser bike, with his long, curly hair bobbing around.
As the company pep rally wound down, Snee opened the floor for questions, many of which focused on the effect of global events on the company. One Austin woman asked what President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from seven nations would mean for Hormel’s workforce, many of whom are immigrants.
“We haven’t found any employees that are directly impacted,” Snee said. If Hormel found an employee negatively affected by Trump’s executive order, Snee said, “Given that we are committed to our very diverse workforce, we will do everything we can to assist them.”
Another shareholder asked what Hormel was doing to help legal immigrants settle into their new homes. Employees at Hormel’s giant plant in town — as well as at the Hormel Institute — account for much of Austin’s racial diversity. Between 2000 and 2010, Mower County’s minority population more than doubled. The Latino population nearly tripled, from 1,646 to 4,138, in that same period, according to census data.
As the questions ended, Snee thanked everyone for coming and the stockholders sprang from their seats.
Hormel employees dressed in lab coats handed out gift boxes filled with products — a company tradition — and quickly shuffled out the double doors.
One hour, in and out.