Beth Ford, the former former CEO of Land O’ Lakes, has been honored by the Building Industry Association of Greater Washington with the Building Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1984, Ford, who had been hired by then-CEO Dr. Louis Inman, came to the Post building at 1 First St., S.E., to visit some engineering data on that city’s only single-pane glass windows. The data were to help the company decide whether or not to move its facility to the (then) owner-built building. As Ford walked down the hallway that led to the entryway, a visitor whispered: “The windows have all been replaced.”
Ford — no one likes discussing hygiene these days — shrugged and headed to the bathroom. While there, she quickly noticed all the debris. Then, she returned to the office.
“I think when I got back, my first question was, ‘Do they know anyone, or do they just use it as a toilet?’” Ford recalled.
Undeterred, Ford chose to finish her own restroom in the front of the building and has never gone back. (“I let every man come in, and I didn’t care if it was my daughter or my sister.”)
Her toilet, a Glidden kitchen-pail style, provided considerably more cleanliness than the existing porcelain bathroom, which was so messy that “it had holes in it that you could see through to the floor,” she says.
Ford decided that she needed an upgraded toilet — right then, not some 20 years later. And then she got a bigger job at Land O’ Lakes, ultimately becoming CEO in 2009 and chairwoman in 2014.
“It’s certainly a very soft-spoken, soft-spoken lady,” said John Jones, vice president of government affairs for the B.I.A. “She is very competitive and creative and good at drawing [people] to her cause, but she is also a businesswoman at heart.”
Ford credits all the good things she’s done for her current job — which her predecessors at Land O’ Lakes included a Rhode Island newspaper editor and a college principal — to perseverance.
“A lot of times with a call center or a management team, you’re not doing the things you love because you’re just following orders or you’re being told what to do by your boss,” she said. “But when I was able to do what I wanted, and stand up to a company who was forcing me not to do it and get her to do what she wanted to do, it did open up doors to me when the company wanted to fire me.”
Shortly after starting at Land O’ Lakes in 1984, Ford resolved to change its approach to customer service. Instead of giving customers multiple phone numbers to choose from, a single number was issued. In the meantime, she said that employees “were becoming more skilled at taking long hours and complex orders. They had to learn to book every night, and when I had had enough, I fired them all because that was my style.”
Back then, Ford was known for her warm personality, but because she drove on schedule every morning at 1:30 — the companies was located in Virginia and she had a daughter in high school — her office was “relatively quiet,” she said.
“Today we are a much larger company, and my leadership style today is a lot more commanding than what it was 20 years ago,” she said. “It’s time that I start leading.”