MINNEAPOLIS — Safe to say Beth Ford will have a happy New Year.
On Jan. 1, the Sioux City native will become the chief operating officer for Land O’ Lakes Business, a division of the Fortune 500 and multi-billion dollar agricultural cooperative that oversees Land O’ Lakes Dairy interests, Purina Animal Nutrition, and Winfield United, which provides ag technology and crop inputs for farmers.
Land O’ Lakes has more than 10,000 U.S. employees, 16 in Sioux City at its Purina Feeds plant at Seventh and Nebraska streets.
Ford, 53, also was recently elected chairwoman of the board of directors for Clearwater Paper Corp., a Spokane, Washington-based paper products manufacturer that is the nation’s largest supplier of private brand toilet paper. She begins that new role on Jan. 1 as well.
The appointments are the latest in a long list of accomplishments for the 1982 Bishop Heelan High School graduate, who completed her undergraduate studies at Iowa State University and earned her MBA from Columbia Business School at Columbia University in New York.
Throughout her more than three decade career in business, Ford has worked for a globally recognized beverage and snack company, the petroleum industry and even had a seven year stint with Scholastic Corp., the multinational publishing house that publishes the Harry Potter books in the U.S.
The Journal sat down with Ford to discuss her new jobs, how she got to where she is and how growing up in Siouxland helped her become successful. Her mother, Carol Wassmuth, still lives in Sioux City.
Q. Did your upbringing and primary education in Sioux City aide you throughout your career?
A. I grew up with a family of seven siblings — there are eight of us — and my father was a truck driver growing up and my mom a nurse and I went to Catholic school — Epiphany and then Heelan — and I think that we had a solid education that was no frills certainly back then and at the same time growing up with that many siblings and a large family with an expectation that you work hard to get the things that you want in your life and I think that’s held true for me. I think that has been a blessing. In fact, I say often I say the experience I had working through college and high school or being in athletics or being in the schools I was in, in grade school and high school has served me very well as I’ve worked in different industries in different parts of the country and world.
Q. What was it like to get your promotion at Land O’ Lakes and be named chairwoman of the Clearwater Paper Corp. Board of Directors around the same time?
A. That was a pretty good day or two. One of my friends posted Monday was the promotion, Tuesday was the chair of the board and it’s only Tuesday what’s happening on Wednesday? You know, it was good. It’s terrific and obviously... those things are generally understood to be occurring in advance of the time they occurred, right? So it wasn’t as if though somebody peaked their head in my office and said, “Hey, by the way, we’re going to promote you.” These were discussions that we had had and I had underway with our CEO for awhile, and, certainly, I understood there was a possibility of being elected to the chair position. To me, it’s a moment in time and I’m excited about both of those opportunities and it’s really the 30 something years of experience I’ve put into business but more of the point is the people you work with more than me.
Q. How do you balance your responsibilities between the two, especially given the distance the companies’ headquarters are from one another?
A. I sit on a different board as well that is based out of Seattle — Paccar, the manufacturer of Peterbilt, Kenworth and DAF trucks — and each of these instances — and I think I mentioned this with somebody — you have a cadence for every business. There’s a cadence for the schedules of every business and there’s a prioritization certainly that I go through depending on what time of the year it is, what the business priorities are and so balancing it; first you’re scheduling the different activities involved with each of these companies and with different, I guess, elements of what you’re responsibilities are. And then you know after awhile you know what you need to focus in on to deliver the results that you are expected to deliver. … I balance it because I have a lot of trust in the teams I work with in both instances. The Clearwater board — Linda Massman is the CEO, I think she’s got a strong management team and she’s a strong leader and then the board I think is strong. So you’re working as a team and I’ve taken a leadership position there. Same thing here where I’ve got a very strong team so the balance really comes from understanding where you are in the year and empowering and expecting that your teammates are going to be delivering the results with you.
Q. How do you balance your professional obligations, social life and volunteer activities such as serving on the board of the Greater Twin Cities United Way?
A. Those are a privilege, I think. I’m still involved at Iowa State — I’m on the board there for the College of Business — I’m still involved with Columbia, I’m involved with the United Way — the times that I’m involved with those things is a privilege. The United Way has such a significant impact in the community. It’s part of the cultural aspect I think of Land O’ Lakes and Minnesota and Minneapolis especially has seen a lot senior leaders involved in various charitable organizations and I think it’s one of the things that makes a community strong. It’s one of the things that attracted me to Land O’ Lakes; the involvement in the community ,the development of stronger communities everywhere we do business I think is important. How do you balance? Well, I think it it’s a priority in your life, if it’s something you have a passion for, then you simply make the time and I think that certainly is the case for me I think in each of these volunteer organizations that I’m involved with. I have a passion for that work and, to me, I think it’s a privilege to be involved with them.
Q. You’ve had a varied career and have seemingly been successful at every stop, but how did you know when it was time to move from one opportunity to the next?
A. That’s a great question because the first 10 years of your career, I think, you are building your career and who you are as a professional and what really interests you. That was certainly the first 10 years of my career. After that, I made connections in various places whether they were consulting firms or people I’ve worked with or wherever. In each instance where I’ve made a change, I either received a call from a recruiter or from a company (asking) me would I be interested in having a conversation with them about a particular role. Sometimes I think, 'No, I’m not.' Other times, I really have followed a process and that is that I listen to what the opportunity is. I then balance what the impact would be from an experience perspective from whether I could have an impact, whether I thought the industry was good, whether the team was a team that I wanted to work with, whether it was the right time for my family — I mean there are a lot of factors. Each time, I was pretty certain after going through the exercise — and by the way, a couple of times I thought to myself, “I’m not going to do this,” and then I got in and I spoke with somebody and then I looked at it and thought, “Actually, I think this would be a great industry to be in,” or, “I could really make a difference,” or, “It’s important work,” or, “I like the team.” There are a variety of factors leading into it. So I’m pretty certain after going through a pretty thorough review of what the option were that it was the right time to make the move.”
Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve received
A. Well, I often say the best piece advice I received/best mentor was my mom. She would say to me, 'I can’t read your mind.' I was number five of eight — 'so if you want something, ask for it.' I think that’s pretty good advice. I recall that frequently. Another time … we were delivering a meal to a family, it was around Thanksgiving and I thought, 'Boy, it’s not like we’re sitting here super wealthy. What are we doing here? What’s this about?' She was very clear, she said, 'Do you understand how much you have, how much you’ve been given and what your responsibilities are?' And, 'Don’t disappoint me.' Mom’s a pretty clear messenger. Those kinds of very solid expectations and certainly no kind of belief from my mother of my father that I couldn’t achieve what I worked hard for, I think those are good pieces of advice. … I think those pieces of advice have served me well in business, have served me well in life and I think if you want something ask for it and work hard to get it. I think that’s been solid advice for me.”
Q. What are some of your keys to success?
A. I really think the future is going to be about continual learning. I think having good intellectual curiosity, confidence in yourself and surrounding yourself with smart people — (and) not being intimidated by that — I think those are keys. Those are things that I rely on and certainly I look for in folks that I hire today; do they have good intellectual curiosity, are they strong leaders, are they confident people, are they able to have grit, do they have resilience. Those are the keys I think to success.