Born in 1932 in Austin, Minnesota, Richard Knowlton was third in a family of seven children. His father was a lifelong employee of nearby Hormel Foods Company. Young Knowlton began working at the meatpacking plant at age 16. He told his father that he was thinking of quitting school because he felt good about the money he was making at Hormel, but his father encouraged him to finish his education.
An excellent high school student, Knowlton was a member of the National Honor Society. His football skills won him a scholarship to the University of Colorado. Upon graduation, he received an offer to play professional football, but instead he chose to return to Hormel, where he had worked every summer.
In 1979, after a steady line of promotions, Knowlton became president of Hormel, followed by appointments as CEO and chairman. In January 1996, he completed his 48-year career with Hormel Food Company, although he remained chairman of the Hormel Foundation until 2011. In 2002, the Knowlton Award was established in his name to recognize those who have made the best and most innovative contributions to the food industry each year.
Proud of his Horatio Alger Award, Knowlton says, “My passion for Horatio Alger is one that continues to grow.” Knowlton has served on the Association’s Board of Directors for a number of years, most recently as chairman. “My interest and commitment to Horatio Alger has intensified,” he says. “Education needs have reached new dimensions. One of the most satisfying accomplishments with the Association has been the dramatic increase in the number and amount of scholarships we award. This is one of the most gratifying aspects of my involvement with the Horatio Alger Association.”
Knowlton advises young people to “establish work and social habits that form a strong value system within. Later, that foundation will provide a sound basis for the thousands of decisions and choices you have to make along the way. Always remember, it’s the little things you do that make up who you are as a person. Leaders should be measured by how well they serve their people, both in the workplace as well as in the community.”
Knowlton believes it was his strong value system that got him through a difficult time at Hormel, when the industry’s failure rate was nearly 100 percent. To survive, he restructured the company and guided Hormel each step of the way, using what he calls “points of difference” to help his company succeed when others were failing. “Always believe you can make a difference,” he says. “Always search for a better way. Establish those qualities that are so much a part of you that it guides you in every situation.”