At McCormick & Co.'s "innovation" center in Hunt Valley, where consumers give feedback on flavors, restaurants get help with menus and company chefs experiment with sauces, Alan D. Wilson headed to the studio to film a video.
It would be shown at employee meetings around the world and translated with subtitles into numerous languages. But this end-of-year business update would differ from those the McCormick CEO films each quarter. Wilson instead would reflect on what he sees as a remarkable milestone for the Hunt Valley spice-maker — 125 years in business.
"We've built on the heritage that the founder created … but, fundamentally, we're largely in the business that the founders started," Wilson said during an interview last month before the filming.
Wilson, a McCormick veteran of 21 years, including the past seven as CEO, is viewed as a steady, thoughtful presence behind the $4.1 billion global enterprise's consistent performance. Under Wilson's management, the company has launched new products such as Skillet Sauces and Freshlock herbs, and overseen acquisitions and joint ventures in emerging markets outside the U.S. He's also looking for a new headquarters, possibly out of state, though the company doesn't want to significantly disrupt worker commutes.
"Overall, he's done a solid job growing the business, growing earnings," said Brian Yarbrough, a consumer analyst for Edward Jones in St. Louis. "The stock price has done well. It's hard to argue with the results."
The 57-year-old former Procter & Gamble executive is described by business associates and friends as trustworthy and visionary.
"Alan is an excellent thinker, and he's someone of great integrity," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a member of McCormick's board. "When he speaks, people listen. … He speaks and works with confidence and knows how to include other people. He appreciates that McCormick is known for empowering people there and sends that message every time he can."
Spices remain at the heart of McCormick, 125 years after Willoughby McCormick and two employees began selling root beer extract door to door in Baltimore. Also still present are the founding principles, Wilson said, "to make the best and someone will buy it," and to recognize "the power of people" through teamwork and collaboration.
But much has evolved. McCormick, with 10,000 employees, sells grilling, baking and cooking flavorings in more than 100 countries, operates plants in 25 nations and has captured 21 percent of the global market for packaged spices and herbs. Besides selling spices to consumers through its red-cap line and brands such as Zatarain's and Lawry's, the company creates seasoning mixes, condiments and other products for food manufacturers and food service companies.
"That gives us scale … and it also give us a lot of opportunity, because there's a lot of room to go up from that," Wilson said.
For Wilson, opportunities come with challenges. While the market for spices is growing, the brand faces increased U.S. competition as lower-priced rivals vie to crowd out the well-known brand on store shelves.
"The private label and smaller players caught them by surprise and have taken some share, and [the company] is increasing the innovation and marketing to get that back," Yarbrough said. "When you are dealing with retailers, it's all about shelf space. When you are the No. 1 brand and have so much market share, how do you keep growing as small, more nimble competitors come in?"
At the same time, McCormick is going through corporate growing pains in Hunt Valley, where it has had plants since the early 1960s, even before it moved the headquarters there from the Inner Harbor. Management is conducting an ongoing, multiyear search for a new site.
The state is working to retain the company, which has long been a major contributor to the Baltimore area's economy — even more so after tapping international markets, said Ursula Powidzki, assistant secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development.
"For our region, that's a fabulous thing," she said.
Wilson never set out to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The native of Seneca, S.C., was the son of a minister and an accountant who joined student government and was elected class president in high school before attending the University of Tennessee on an ROTC scholarship. He thought he'd become a sports broadcaster.
"They didn't have a lot, but they did have a … great family environment, so it's not surprising that Alan became the person that he is," said Mike Gill, chairman of Columbia-based investment bank Evergreen Advisors, who met Wilson in the late 1990s when their sons played high school sports together at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville.
After four years in the Army as a nuclear weapons officer, Wilson joined Procter & Gamble, starting out, he has said, as a diaper tape buyer. He moved to Baltimore in 1989 when P&G bought Noxell Corp. He was senior purchasing manager for the cosmetics division when he jumped to McCormick in 1993. By the time he became CEO, Wilson had played a key role in a 2005 cost-cutting plan.
"He's had great success but never ever forgot where he came from," said Gill, a longtime friend and golfing partner.
Stephen L. Mangum, dean of the Haslam College of Business at Wilson's alma mater, has seen that trait as well in Wilson, an executive-in-residence and member of the dean's advisory council for the business school.
"From a young age, the importance of giving back and trying to give back to the next generation is something that drives him," Mangum said. "When he meets with students in small groups, he opens up his direct email and telephone lines to them, so he does a very good job of keeping in touch as they go through the recruiting process."
The CEO spends about half his time traveling, checking the pulse of international consumers and visiting McCormick facilities around the world. A third of the spice-maker's growth has come from acquisitions and joint ventures into Eastern Europe, Poland, Turkey and India. McCormick landed its largest emerging market acquisition a year and a half ago when it acquired China-based Wuhan Asia-Pacific Condiments Co. Ltd. for $141 million.
"If I go to China, I'll go to a combination of modern retail and local retail and also street markets and see how people are buying their food," Wilson said. "It gives me a great perspective."
Even though the brand has spread globally, the bulk of growth comes from its base business and new products that start out as ideas tested in flavor labs and culinary centers. The main "Technical Innovation Center" sits down the road from McCormick's Hunt Valley spice plant, and new centers have opened in China, Mexico, South Africa and Canada.
"When we're going to create a new product, we'll have chefs prepare a variety of those kinds of things and then we'll match it up to the real culinary product," Wilson said. "If we're going to create a snack seasoning that tastes like mole, we'll start with really good authentic mole and then taste that on a snack chip, and you really know where you're going is authentic."
McCormick's sales and profits are increasing — by 3 percent and 18 percent, respectively, during the most recent quarter — as more people cook at home, trying international cuisine and using spices and herbs to cook healthier meals. The popularity of cooking and showing off meals through social media among millennials is driving growth, too.
Some of those trends converged in a company initiative to mark its 125th year. More than a million consumers shared stories, photos and videos about foods and flavors in its "Flavor of Together" social media campaign. When it ended last month, McCormick had donated $1 for every story, or $1.25 million, to United Way hunger programs.
"What we've seen is how deeply people feel around their passion for food," Wilson said.
The campaign has pointed out emerging and re-emerging flavor trends, such as the popularity of smoked paprika and peppers, pickling and pickled foods, Wilson said. He expects the campaign to help shape future products.
"It's informed us on the importance of flavor and the passion that people have for flavor in their lives," Wilson said. "We're looking forward to what we want to be for the next 125 years."
Alan D. Wilson
The Evening Sun
Title: chairman, president and CEO, McCormick & Co. Inc.
Previous McCormick positions: President; president of North American consumer foods and supply chain; president of U.S. consumer foods; vice president and general manager of sales and marketing for the U.S. consumer business; president of Canadian operations
Education: Bachelor's degree in communications from University of Tennessee in 1980
Military service: U.S. Army captain, with tours in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.
Hometown: Seneca, S.C.
Interests/hobbies: Skiing (water and snow), golf, boating and hiking