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What’s the Big Idea?

For Nate Smit, it’s always something
By
  • Mary Burich

August 21, 2017

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Story

Nate Smit never met an adventure not worth taking. From striking up a conversation with someone in the coffee line to wandering into abandoned mines to raising chickens at his Minnesota home, he has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and ideas.

That’s a good thing in an innovation manager.

“When you’re curious, you always want to see what’s around the next bend,” he says.

Nate has been with Hormel Foods since 2001, when he started his career in the company’s chemistry lab in Austin, Minn. He was fresh out of college with an associate’s degree in lab science and work experience from Tyson Foods. He learned about Hormel Foods and “came to admire the company.”

“I sent my resume in every quarter and then followed up with a courtesy call each time. I kept applying until I was hired,” he says.

After a year or two, Nate got restless. He moved on to the Hormel Foods pilot lab, where he met — and worked with — the team of scientists focused on developing new products. He was hooked.

“I discovered that was my passion,” he says.

Continuing Education

Nate knew he would need more formal education to progress, so he began looking for relevant programs. He discovered a food science curriculum at Kansas State University. It was an online program, even if not by today’s standards. Nate recalls that when he began in the early 2000s, the courses were mailed to his home on VHS tapes. He would watch them and take tests at his local public library. By the time he completed his bachelor’s degree in 2008, the program had gone digital.

Nate financed his education with the help of the Hormel Foods tuition assistance program, a scholarship for nontraditional students and his own funds. His degree in food science and business began to pay dividends almost immediately. He was promoted to associate scientist, and began proving his mettle as an inventor.

During that time, he registered the first of his four patents.

As if sensing Nate’s uneasiness with the accomplishment, a seasoned co-worker named Gale Kunert took him aside and gave him advice that serves him to this day.

“Gale was a food scientist, and he was prolific with patents,” Nate says. “He told me, ‘Ideas are where you find them.’ He would bump into people in the break room, have a conversation and get an idea for a new product. That’s how he worked.”

Nate was promoted to scientist and after that role concluded, he joined the Grocery Products division. That’s when his managers sent him to Stanford University to learn design thinking and principles of innovation. Nate not only learned the process, he gained confidence in his ability to be innovative.

Inspiring Innovation

As corporate innovation manager, he now works on new product pipelines for established brands. He was part of the team that brought SKIPPY®P.B. Bites to market. “The day when something you worked on hits the shelf and you get to see it for real…it’s the best part of my job,” he says.

A close second must surely be the Hormel Foods culture of innovation. “I try to be inspired every day to get new ideas. You never know what things are going to influence your direction and what you find along the journey,” he says, paying tribute to Gale’s guidance so many years ago.

That said, no one has ever had to light a fire under Nate where “new ideas” are concerned. Indeed, his interest in experimentation surfaced early on. “Growing up, I had a chemistry lab in a closet at home. I won a lot of science awards,” he says.

Outside of Hormel Foods

He was fortunate to have a wide circle of kindred spirits during his childhood. “My uncle and grandparents were always building things with me. Soapbox-derby cars, go-carts, all kinds of things,” he says. “And there was always someone to go exploring with. Cousins, friends.”

Nate grew up in Greeley, Colo., the site of some of his most memorable adventures. “We would take piles of grocery bags, wind them around sticks and use them for torches. Then we’d go into the mineshafts and look for gold. Just like Indiana Jones,” he says.

Nate may never have struck gold in the literal sense. However, he managed to parlay what may well be his defining quality into a custom-made, successful career, not to mention a fulfilling life.

He’s been married to his “best friend,” Becky, for 17 years. “We have no children,” Nate says. “But we have chickens. I like hobbies and I’m super-curious. I like to learn things.”

The two live on 15 acres outside of Austin proper. Their land boasts trails, a pond and wildlife that feeds off of crops that Becky and Nate plant for them. “We’re living the country life,” he says. “[We have] the whole works.”

He’s also living the writer’s life, with two books to his credit. The first is a science fiction novel. The second, “Grandma’s Guide to the Good Life,” is a tribute to the late Grace Smit, his paternal grandmother. She was famous for imparting pearls of wisdom such as, “’There is no right way to do wrong things,’ and ‘Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.’”

She also fed and nurtured her grandson’s need for knowledge, taking him camping in the Rocky Mountains and teaching him how to fish for trout. Plus, she was fun, Nate recalls.

“When we would go trout fishing on the Poudre River, she used to tell me that the fish would bite once the sun peeked over the mountain. It worked every time,” he says.

Grace would no doubt be proud of Nate’s many accomplishments in and out of Hormel Foods. As for the chickens?

“I’m not sure about that one,” he says.