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What a Difference a Day Makes

Meet the man who stands at the helm of the largest division of Hormel Foods
By
  • Mary Burich

June 5, 2018

Category
Story

Mention Tom Day to one of the many thousands of Hormel Foods workers who’ve met him during his 37-year career, and you’re likely to get a smile. Find someone who has more than a passing knowledge of him, and you’ll probably get a story, to boot. There’s no way of telling what the anecdote will be about, but this much is certain: You won’t easily forget it.

As executive vice president of Refrigerated Foods, Day leads the largest segment of the four that comprise Hormel Foods. In 2017, the division accounted for $4.4 billion in net sales and 48 percent of the company’s total. However, you might have to turn to Day’s bio for that information. Those who speak of him like to convey who he is rather than what he has accomplished, despite an extraordinarily long list of successes.

Jeff Baker heads up the foodservice group. As one of Day’s direct reports, he’s part of the inner circle, and yet, his boss continues to mystify him.

“We had [just acquired Fontanini] and traveled there to introduce ourselves to the group. I walked out of the sales meeting, and Tom has 15 people around him. And he’s reassuring them about their jobs,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch. There are hundreds of those stories.”

He inspires the company, inspires the people.

Deanna Brady, president, consumer products sales

Deanna Brady has more than a few of her own. The group vice president and president of consumer products sales worked for Day for 11 years. Though they’ve been peers for 15 since, she was quick to point out she continues to look up to him.

“He went from being a leader to being one of the leaders of the company, she said. “He inspires the company, inspires the people.”

The two began their partnership in the early ‘90s when the foodservice group was getting its start. “We became inseparable,” she said.

An already close friendship became further cemented as Day was dealing with the illness and death of Sheri, his wife of 30 years. Brady remembers it as an “awful time.”

“Those experiences create different elements in your working relationship and your personal relationship,” she said.

To wit: Brady’s children have Day’s mobile number, and he doesn’t hesitate to check in on them just in case they are reluctant to use it.

“A tornado came through the area once when I was traveling. Tom called my kids to make sure they were all right, that they weren’t afraid,” she remembered.

A Personal Connection

For his part, he’s willing to admit that personal and professional lives are not neatly compartmentalized in his world. Day makes no apology for it. More to the point, he believes that brand of personal connection to co-workers is one of the qualities that sets the company apart.

“This is a very uncommon place,” he said. “The support I got after Sheri died … I don’t know how you could replicate that anywhere else.”

The small-town Minnesota locale of Hormel Foods gives way to a lot of interaction between workers in their off time. “The first time you’re pumping gas next to the CEO, you’re taken aback, but then you get used to it. It’s normal for us. Hormel Foods is very big, but Austin isn’t. We run into each other at night and on weekends. Our kids go to school together,” he said.

Tom’s Journey to Hormel Foods

Day grew up in rural Wisconsin, one of five closely spaced brothers raised for eight years by their single mother. There was no well-traveled path for him to follow. “My parents were divorced before it was stylish,” he said.

He landed his first job when he was 10, doing chores for a local farmer. Lunch was included, and Day accepted it gratefully. “That gave my mom a break in her budget.”

Mrs. Day remarried and gave the family its only sister. Life was a little easier then, yet true to form, Day continued to work. He had a paper route, a position at a local grocery store, a stint at a co-op washing car windows and pumping gas, and a factory job as soon as he turned 18.

Tom Day & Siblings

Tom with his four brothers and sister

He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, joining Hormel Foods in 1981 upon completing his bachelor’s degree. Day then moved to Texas to begin his career. It was only the second time he had ever been outside of Wisconsin, but he made the move without reservation.

“I left thinking this was a company where people make a difference. I’ve never been disappointed,” he said.

Texas is where the Days started their life and their family, raising two sons who learned early on what it means to work – and work hard. Not only was their father in favor of the concept, he insisted on it.

“No one works harder than our production professionals,” Day said. “I wanted my sons to understand the value of a day’s work. So, when they became old enough, both of them went to work in a production setting during the summer. I didn’t want to cheat them out of the experience of getting up early, punching a time clock and accomplishing their day-to-day assignments,” he said.

After college, both young men sought opportunities with Hormel Foods. Matthew is in a sales management position in Chicago and Daniel is a senior auditor. Relatives aren’t discouraged from joining the company. On the contrary, there are countless examples going back multiple generations. Day can’t think of a better testimonial.

“It has a lot to say about the conversation that happens at the dinner table,” he said. “Your kids don’t want to work for a company that Mom and Dad complain about.”

During those hectic years of starting a career and raising kids, Day managed to complete a master’s degree at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The couple found some time to socialize as well, becoming close with fellow Hormel Foods employee Tom McCunniff and his wife, Lori.

Day’s friend Tom passed away in 2013, a year and a half after Sheri Day’s death. A long-standing friendship between Lori and Day eventually gave way to a courtship that resulted in a second marriage in 2016 – and another chance at happiness – for both.

“I always say be careful of the people you hang around with,” Day joked. “You could end up married.”

Tom Day & Family

Tom with his wife, sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren

Executive Vice President Steve Binder has known and worked with Day for over 30 years.

“He’s an outstanding businessman and leader, but he’s an even better family man,” Binder said. “Tom’s sons and my sons are about the same age. We’ve enjoyed a lot of family time over the years.”

Topping the family-time list is Day’s legendary fathers-and-sons camping trip, a tradition that’s endured for 26 years straight. The dads all work or have worked for Hormel Foods.

“The first few years, we went to Lyle,” Day said. As the boys got older, the troop ventured farther from home. But the Lyle trips (near the Iowa border) were the most fun, Day insisted. “The kids were 5 and 6, and a night in a tent was a big adventure for them.”

The largest group of sons was 28; usually it was 14 or so. In 2017, there were three dads and eight sons, all “30-ish.” They headed to Montana for a fly-fishing weekend.

Old-Fashioned Values

Day credits his mother with instilling in him a devotion to family and an ironclad work ethic that runs just as deeply. Their ritual of Sunday phone calls continued until December 2016. She died on Christmas Eve that year at the age of 82. Her life had not been easy. She was tired, her son recalled.

Memories of her are vivid, and her everyday influence on him is alive and well. Hers are the standards Day continues to measure himself by – good old-fashioned values like honesty, integrity, hard work and kindness.

“It doesn’t matter what level you are,” said Mark Morey, who oversees Burke Marketing Corp., Applegate Farms and Dan’s Prize for the Refrigerated Foods segment. “You’re all equal in his eyes.”

Donnie Temperley, vice president of operations for Refrigerated Foods, remembered meeting Day for the first time several decades ago. He was mesmerized by his way with people.

“I will never forget him going through bacon with the team. This is so Tom: explaining the importance of making every strip of bacon perfect in a way that people understood and could be proud of,” he said. “You don’t want to disappoint him.”

Day’s expectations are arguably high, and that can be daunting. He became more selfaware during an off-site meeting. “One team member spoke up and told him he was intimidating,” Brady said. “He felt genuinely bad.”

“That’s not what I want to be,” he said. “My mother raised me better than that.”

So, Day got on the phone with the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. and asked for the biggest stuffed bear in the lineup. The six-footer has been a fixture in his office ever since, serving as a not-so-subtle reminder that underneath the success, the well-known reputation for excellence and his O-line build lies a big softie. He’s grown rather attached to his officemate, too, even letting the bear wear the prized company jersey Day earned recently.

“There are times when that bear is the smartest one in the room,” he laughed.

Don’t believe it for a minute.

“Tom’s an outstanding team builder. He knows how to motivate people to reach goals,” Binder said.

Inspiring The Team

Day’s grab bag of inspirational tools is chockfull of props, pep talks and sports slogans, giving him an air of familiarity. His stature, posture and manners of speech make you think you’ve met him before. Perhaps it’s just that he reminds you of some of the great ones. John Madden, for example, who happens to hail from the hometown of Hormel Foods. But instead of handing out turkey drumsticks, Day uses the likes of coins and a giant rock to bolster enthusiasm and build his team.

“There’s a three-ton boulder outside the corporate office,” Binder said. “Put there by Tom.”

The idea came out of a national sales meeting, where the theme was teamwork. “The point is, no one person can do it alone,” Binder explained. The message isn’t easy to forget, given the mammoth visual.

National Sales Meeting

In much the same way, Day serves as a constant reminder of the essence of the company that he said has “stretched him personally and professionally” for the better part of his life. Small wonder he was tapped to chair the 125th anniversary celebration of Hormel Foods, a days-long event held for workers, family members and the community in 2016. Or that he was honored by the foodservice group as its Pride of the Jersey recipient.

Yet, it’s the daily events that keep Day coming back for more. He’s never not wanted to come to work, he said. It’s obvious to even the most casual observer.

Sitting forward in his chair, forearms and fists on the table, he leaned in to close a staff meeting with a simple directive.

“We still have time to get the ball across the goal line,” he said. There could easily have been a chorus of “Put me in, Coach,” but Day had the last word. And this afternoon it wasn’t about financial results. Instead, he talked about an impending hurricane with a projected path through Florida.

“Let’s make sure everyone is taken care of. Make sure we have our emergency contact numbers so we can know everyone is safe. When [Hurricane] Andrew hit, we had some people who needed help, and we were able to get it to them pretty quickly,” he said.

At the end of the day, that’s what matters.