The Path from Programmer to VP

Mark D. Vaupel shares the leadership lessons he learned while working his way from computer analyst to vice president of IT at Hormel Foods

Vaupel’s Lessons

When Mark D. Vaupel joined Hormel Foods in 1996 as a computer analyst, he wasn’t exactly a typical hire for the food manufacturer. Aside from the fact that he didn’t join the company straight out of college, he also brought a business and finance background to the IT team. But his non-traditional resume proved to be a good fit.

“I was looking to continue to develop my technical programming skills, as well as gain a better understanding of the business processes associated with running a food manufacturing company,” Vaupel remembers.

Nearly two decades later, as vice president of IT services at Hormel Foods, Vaupel considers some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Move a step backward to take two steps forward.

Soon after the new millennium, the leadership at Hormel Foods wanted to gain better alignment between IT and the company’s overall strategic direction. This involved restructuring the IT organization and creating a group known as Planning and Strategy. In 2002, Vaupel was appointed manager of the team and began prioritizing projects as well as implementing a more formal governance process for requesting services from the IT department. Also around this time, Congress passed legislation known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), which imposed new regulations and requirements around operations.

“Many folks thought [the new law] would result in inefficiencies and that we wouldn’t be as responsive to our customers, but eventually it made our team better and more aligned,” says Vaupel. Sure enough, in the beginning, it was all about how to be compliant—independent of the inefficiencies that it brought along with it. “When we were a small organization, if you made a change, you stood up and told the person in the cube next to you, and word of mouth was good enough. I reminded the team that, as we grow, we require more formal processes.”

Case Study: The All-In App

The foodservice division at Hormel Foods—responsible for selling products to dining facilities outside the home, including restaurants, hospitals, and universities—was using preprinted point-of-sale materials during sales calls. When a chef or food-service director had a question that wasn’t addressed in the materials, the salesperson would have to go back to their desk to answer it.

Launched in February 2015, the All-In app that Vaupel’s team designed provides users with a portfolio of images and product information accessible via their mobile phones. The sales force can now access product attributes, such as calories or protein content, in real time and email the information to digitally inclined clients.

Learn to ask lots of questions and trust your team.

Oftentimes, the leap from individual contributor to leader can be fraught with ambivalence. As Vaupel notes, it can be hard to let go of responsibilities when you’re used to being recognized for technical expertise. It’s what happened when he was promoted to director of IT services in 2004. He was suddenly in charge of about 100 employees and responsible for areas in which he had almost no experience, including infrastructure.

“My career in IT had primarily been application development, project management, and business analysis,” Vaupel says. “I was out of application development for a couple of years by that time. I quickly realized there was no way I was going to be able to be an expert in all of those areas.”

This reality check forced Vaupel to step back and consider the big picture while putting a lot of trust in the team members. He soon realized success was a matter of asking the right questions. Knowing the pros and cons of every option ultimately offered him the 30,000-foot view necessary for smart decision-making.

Don’t underestimate the forces of nature.

As director of IT, Vaupel was also responsible for technology risk exposure. At the time, the primary production data center for Hormel Foods was located in the floodplain in Austin, Minnesota, while the backup center was just six blocks away. Two major floods and one tornado later, Vaupel assembled a team to evaluate options and potential solutions.

The team pitched the idea of constructing a new data center at least fifteen miles away—the largest project IT had ever proposed. “Why not just put everything in the cloud?” the leadership wondered. In fact, the cost justifications over a twelve-year period supported building another physical data center.

Over the course of five months, Vaupel and his team practiced every single migration point via tabletop drill exercises and successfully moved all hardware, software, and networking infrastructure without any unplanned outages. Sirius Consulting compared it to changing out the engine in a car while driving down the road at fifty-five miles per hour. “That was probably the most complex project that my team has achieved to date,” says Vaupel.

Grow in a way that saves you money.

Like any profitable company, one of the main goals at Hormel Foods is growth, including acquisitions. But integrating new acquisitions into the IT environment has been challenging at times. So in 2008, Vaupel and the company’s controller crafted Project Leverage—an effective way of centralizing and standardizing business processes, applications, and IT infrastructure.

A detailed estimate of the cost advantages indicates that Hormel Foods has saved at least $10.6 million annually since 2010, according to Vaupel. That’s in addition to reduced risk exposures, better visibility and consistency of information across the enterprise, as well as improved traceability of products.

Recently, the Skippy peanut butter business was completely integrated into the standard processes, IT infrastructure, and application environment in just eighty-two days, saving more than $1 million in transition service fees alone.

Last November, Vaupel was promoted to the newly created position of vice president of IT services, just in time for his twentieth anniversary at the company this spring. But like any dedicated leader, he doesn’t see the milestone as an excuse to slow down.

“I’ll take my team to lunch,” Vaupel says, “but then get back to work.”