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George A. Hormel

the man who "fought" Chicago-based meatpackers by focusing on pork

George A. Hormel

George Albert Hormel was born in Buffalo, New York, on December 4, 1860, the third child and first son of John George and Susanna (Decker) Hormel, both of whom were German immigrants. In 1865 or 1866, the Hormel family moved to Toledo, Ohio, where John George, his brother, and a mutual friend opened a tannery. As was common practice in the German-American community of the day, George worked in the family business after school and during school breaks.

Early Career

The family tannery enjoyed success until 1873, when a national financial crisis caused a decline in business. Forced to quit school and seek employment elsewhere, George began his "outside career" as a lather's apprentice. Finding this work unappealing, however, he left within a short time and went to work in a meat market. Although George initially seemed to enjoy the meat market business, he did not enjoy his boss, so once again he chose to quit and seek employment elsewhere. He subsequently worked as a stevedore, at a lumber yard, and then in the yard of the Wabash Railway Company, before moving to Chicago to work in an uncle's meat market.

In Chicago, Hormel once again found that he enjoyed the meat business, despite the back-breaking work. His uncle did not pay anywhere close to an average wage, however, so in 1880 he and a friend bought one-way train tickets to Kansas City, where they expected to find a wealth of good-paying jobs. The boys had little luck finding the high-paying jobs they expected, but Hormel did eventually find work as a wool buyer. When the wool company went bankrupt, Hormel returned to Chicago, where he got a job loading and unloading hides. Soon tiring of the back-breaking work, Hormel was prepared to quit when he was unexpectedly offered a position as a traveling hide buyer for the company. He quickly accepted the job and relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, the headquarters of his assigned territory, which included northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

For the first time in his working life, Hormel seemed to have found a job that suited him, but he eventually grew tired of the transient life and decided it was time to find a place to settle down and start his own business. He wrote to the friend he had gone to Kansas City with and asked if he was interested in opening a butcher supply shop in Des Moines, but his friend politely declined the offer. Although he had to put his ambition on hold temporarily, Hormel did not give up on it, and the perfect opportunity finally came his way. In 1887, while on a business trip to Austin, Minnesota, he learned that a customer’s meat market had recently burned to the ground. The owner, a German named Anton “Fritz” Friedrich, rebuilt the shop but did not want to operate the market any longer. With $500 borrowed from his boss at the hide company, Hormel bought a share in the Austin meat market from Fritz Friedrich. In partnership with Friedrich’s son Albrecht, he opened the Friedrich and Hormel meat market in October of that year, but differing ideas about how to run the business prompted Hormel and Friedrich to part ways in 1891.

The Hormel Company

The Geo. A. Hormel & Co. was established in 1891, with the money Hormel received for his share of the Friedrich and Hormel meat market. At the time, the meatpacking industry was dominated by the Big Five packers: Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, and Cudahy, all of whom operated primarily out of Chicago. As a small meatpacker in a small town, Hormel could not even begin to compete in terms of market share with those companies, so he began his business by focusing on a single product, pork. During his years operating the Friedrich and Hormel meat market, Hormel kept careful records of each animal slaughtered, meticulously tracking every carcass and the pieces of meat sold from each. His data revealed that pork had the least waste, since unlike beef or mutton, the entire hog carcass could be used in some way. Pork, he realized, had the greatest profit potential. His rural location was also ideal, as he was close to the source of his supply, the farmers. As long as he could secure a steady and sufficient stream of hogs, he believed he could operate a successful packinghouse. To ensure that supply, he made it a point to pay the best price possible for every hog, and to always make sure that each and every hog was weighed accurately and honestly. By emphasizing quality over quantity, he gained a loyal customer base regionally, and by the mid-1890's he had opened two more meat markets in Austin.

In the beginning, Hormel did every job himself -- buying livestock, slaughtering animals, trimming and grading the meat, harvesting ice, keeping the books, selling, and even cleaning the hog pens. He soon realized, however, that in order to be truly successful he would need to have employees. His first employee was a recently-arrived Danish immigrant named George Peterson. His second employee was his youngest brother Ben, who left Toledo to work for George in late 1891, when Ben was just fourteen years old. In 1893 two more brothers, Herman and John, left Toledo to work for George in Austin. A few years later his cousin Jay Decker, the son of the uncle he had worked for in Chicago, came to work for him as well. In 1895 John George Hormel sold his business in Toledo and moved his family to Austin. From that point on, John George assisted his son by taking over the bookkeeping duties of the business. Geo. A. Hormel & Co. had 18 employees (including George, his brothers, and his cousin) in 1896, but by the 1910's that number had grown to about 300. Geo. A. Hormel & Co. was officially incorporated in 1901, with George A. Hormel as president, Herman Hormel as vice president, Al Eberhart (sales manager) as secretary, and John Hormel as treasurer.

Although he spent less time on the packinghouse floor after 1901, George Hormel remained in full control of day-to-day operations at the plant until 1927, when he finally decided to retire. Handing the reins over to his son, Jay Catherwood Hormel, George Hormel and his wife then moved to Beverly Hills, California, so he wouldn't be tempted to drop in on a whim. He stayed on as Chief Executive Officer, however, and maintained contact with his son, read weekly business reports, regularly sent suggestions on new equipment and hog-killing schedules, and made regular visits to the plant until his death, which came in Los Angeles on June 5, 1946. All of Austin, Minnesota, shut down for his funeral, and he was buried in that city's Oakwood Cemetery.

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This page was last updated on December 03, 2017.