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Ron Pearson: Community Service Leader of the Year

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Pearson’s employees find fulfillment through philanthropy

“It’s a thrill for your employees to get involved and be encouraged to do good things for their communities,” said Ron Pearson, chairman, chief executive officer and chief operating officer of Hy-Vee Inc. “It gives them the opportunity to use their special talents to give back to their city and state. It builds a special camaraderie, an esprit de corp, you only find in organizations that work to make a difference.”

Although Pearson admits Hy-Vee’s community outreach efforts result in fulfilled workers with increased job satisfaction, improving the corporate climate is not his main goal.

“Hy-Vee has always had a very strong belief in community involvement,” he said. “We absolutely believe when we make our community stronger, we make a better place for our employees to live and for our customers to live.”

Pearson worked his way up in the business. He worked part-time at Hy-Vee during his college years. After graduating in 1964, he went to work there full time. Ten years later, he was named a district manager, and in 1975, vice president of retail operations. Three years later, Pearson was promoted to executive vice president. He was elected president and chief operating officer by 1983, and added chief executive officer and chairman of the board to his titles in 1989.

“You can’t go any higher,” Pearson said.

Hy-Vee Inc., an employee-owned retail chain concentrated in the upper Midwest, has 188 supermarkets and 28 drugstores and pulled in $4 billion in sales last year.

“We’re the largest employer in the state, and the third-largest employee-owned company in the U.S. by number of employees,” Pearson said. “I think that’s an honor for the state.”

The company has brought more than that honor to Iowa. The company is a founding sponsor of the Iowa Games, contributed capital to the Iowa Events Center, which will feature a Hy-Vee Exhibit Hall, and helped to establish the Hy-Vee Classic, a stop on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association’s fledgling seniors tour.

“We wanted to create a great recreational and entertainment opportunity for Iowa, but we also wanted to create an opportunity for ladies’ golf,” Pearson said. “After all, women are the bulk of our customers, and more than 50 percent of our employees.”

Hy-Vee has made similar efforts in other states, contributing to the Omaha Zoo, the Kansas City racetrack and professional football and baseball teams.

The company also has a program to adopt schools. Each store selects a school and contributes time, money, business education or products to help the students. For example, Pearson said, one store recently gave a hat, a scarf and a pair of gloves to every student at its grade school.

Last year, Hy-Vee contributed $800,000 to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, placing it sixth among companies making the largest donations. It also gave more than $500,000 to the Variety Club. As a result of their efforts, Pearson and his wife, Ruth, received the Variety Club’s highest international award, the Catharine Variety Sheridan Award, which reflects donations and community involvement.

“I’m surprised [anyone] knows I won it,” Pearson said. “I told everybody they gave the award to Hy-Vee. My wife and I were honored to receive it, but we know it came because of Hy-Vee and our connection with Hy-Vee. Although I guess for your company to make a difference, you have to believe in it yourself.”

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