Ken Murray knows what it means to start at the bottom and work your way up. He also knows a great deal about loyalty and how to share his many skills and gifts. Shortly after World War II, and after growing up in rural Ontario, Ken found himself in Kitchener. He was attending a Re-Hab school that had been established by the Federal Govern ment for ex-servicemen. He soon found part-time employment atJ.M. Schneider nailing wooden egg cartons together. When he retired forty years later, he was President and Vice-Chairman of the Board of J.M. Schneider which during that time had transformed into a major Canadian corporation.
The Horatio Alger myth of the poor rural boy making it big in the city has become increasingly improbable these days. Everything in our culture frowns on long-term stability. Corporate executives rarely stay with the same company and they do not come from the shop floor. MBA schools have turned the business world into a high stakes and transient occupation where skilled individuals seek the employment that offers the highest dollar. Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites laments the decline of civic responsibility and wonders why both money and people have become so restless and migratory. It is not just the corporate world that has turned its back on long-term stability. The same phenomena is true right through the labour market. Efficiency and the bottom line dominate while long term loyalty declines.
Ken Murray’s story is one of continual personal growth towards a deeper understanding about community and the desire to tangibly return to the community the many blessings he has been fortunate to be part of.
Ken Murray joined the Schneider organization a few years after J.M. Schneider’s death in 1942. The founder had methodically and carefully built his German sausage business into a very profitable regional business. Now in the postwar years his sons, Fred and Nor man, were laying the plans for more expansion, more products and more workers.
By 1950, Ken had completed his degree in animal husbandry from the Ontario Agricultural College (now the University of Guelph) and became a salesman for Schneider products in Waterloo, quickly selling a million pounds in his first year. His performance brought him rapid recognition. After three years, he moved out of sales and onto a path that included stock buyer, plant superintendent, general manger and eventually the presidency of the company.
Herbert Schneider, Chairman and Douglas Dodds, President and Chief Executive Officer wrote a letter in 1995 outlining Ken’s achievements at Schneiders.
'...For sixteen of those years he was our President presiding over the Company during the 1970s, a period of unprecedented growth for us. In a corporation our size no one person accounts for everything that happens. By the same token, nothing gets done in the absence of leadership. Under Ken’s leadership, teamwork was encouraged and a direction was set that resulted in J.M. Schneider growing from a regional pork packer to a national food corporation. Our sales grew from $70 million in 1970 to 650 million in 1985...More importantly for the community, employment also doubled during Mr. Murray’s years from 1700 employees, when Ken became president in 1970, to 3500 employees working in plants, offices and distribution centres across the country. Mr. Murray was the kind of leader who gave people around him the support, challenge and responsibility for their actions.'
During this same period Ken contributed to the Kitchener-Waterloo community through extensive involvement with the Waterloo County Public School Board, the Kitchener Rotary Club, the Kitchener Young Men’s Club, the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation, to name a few.
The 1950s, 60s and 70s were prosperous years. The major industries of Kitchener, the meat packing, rubber, furniture, consumer electronics and auto industries, all contributed to and profited by the rising national standard of living. This was a period when a company like J.M. Schneider that had been dedicated to expanding its production, marketing and distribution was able to take advantage of the rising prosperity. It was during this period that families slowly gave up the ability to produce and preserve what they needed at home. The growing consumer market was buying more packaged and convenience foods which fuelled Schneider’s phenomenal growth.
Ken Murray describes this post war period as a time when you went to bed and woke up better off because the standard of living was rising so rapidly. Ken considers his generation as being among the most economically prosperous group ever to live because of the economic growth of this period.
Eventually, though, unlimited growth is unsustainable. J.M. Schneider’s official history refers to the 1990s as a time which has shaken “our faith in the shining future we had been led to believe was our rightful inheritance.” This month, J.M Schneider laid off 500 workers and is redefining itself in the ever increasing high-tech world of meat processing. Ken Murray’s retirement was over 12 years before these new economic realities had fully taken hold.
Growing Up in the 1920s and 30s
If you were born in the 1920s, two world events defined how you grew up. The first reality was the Depression which ingrained the virtue of making do with what was available. The second was the war against fascism and the drive to recreate a better world. Ken Murray was born in 1924 in Buxton, Ontario near Chatham, which had been the northern terminus of the Underground Railway. His father was a United Church minister who, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, had emigrated from Scotland as a Presbyterian minister. He chose to serve congregations in rural Ontario. This was a great gift to Ken. He spent much of his time helping his friends do farm chores and learning the honest values of rural living. He also learned first hand about the hardships of farming during the depression years of the 1930s.
His mother and father always re served a room in their house to offer to anyone who needed a place to stay. Some Christian traditions call this the Christ Room. It is the place where all families can offer shelter to those with out a place to stay. It meant that one would never know who might be joining the family at meals. It was a daily lesson on how to accept different people for who they are. The experience of the Depression where many rural families struggled to share among themselves the little they had deeply marked Ken as he grew up. His parents gave Ken an up bringing that fully reflected the gospel call to treat people respectfully and share what you have.
It is not surprising that in his retirement speech to his business associates he describes the standards and expectations that he sets for himself and others.
'Throughout my business experience I have been a supporter of the responsible enterprise system. No I did not say the free enterprise system. It is my belief that the only reason we continue to have more and more rules and regulations thrust on us is because, when men and women operate free from their conscience, their greed takes over and the concerns for those to be served is often forgotten. It is my perception, from what I see happening around me, that there is, slight as it may be, a return to a basic value system which has at its roots a basic theological teaching. And if that is so, then those who take action and those who report on the action taken will operate in the manner which illustrates that they understand and believe that they have a responsibility to those they serve rather than their own private well being.'
'Responsibility to those they serve rather than their own private well being'
When you read about Ken’s activities in the twelve years since he has retired you can see that he is committed to generously sharing the gifts he has been entrusted with.
The project that is dearest to Ken’s heart is the Alzheimer Research and Education Project. Ken and his wife Helen (Volker) were married for over 40 years and together they raised two daughters Susan Pearce and Leslie Harwood. Ken is now the proud grandfather to Andrewand Lauren. Helen lived her last years with Alzheimer’s disease. Ken learned first hand the many difficulties families experience looking after a loved one with Alzheimer’s. He helped assemble a group of people from the Alzheimer Association of Ontario, the University of Waterloo Centre for Applied Health Research and long-term care providers to develop a research and action plan to “enhance the quality of life of all persons affected by this disease, while the re search for the cause and cure continues.” Ken was a major benefactor of this project helping to get it off the ground, develop its research projects and help it reach its first year goal of raising $400,000.
In its first three years the project has completed the first major survey of the residential facilities that are providing care to people with Alzheimer’s disease. It is identifying and evaluating methods of support which could improve the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s. The project is working with groups of residents in the early stages of the disease to learn about the best ways families can be of assistance and creating an annotated bibliography and a manual on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
On Saturday, October 7, 1995, The Cambridge Times featured a colour front page picture of Ken Murray with his two grandchildren, Andrew, 9, and Lauren, 6, as they looked out over the Murray Overlook at the 16 kilometre point on the Cambridge to Paris Rail Trail. The autumn scene in the back ground is of beautiful trees on both sides of the Grand River as it winds its way towards Paris. The Grand River Conservation Authority has opened up wonderful recreation trails by converting old railway lines into bicycle and walking trails. They have had to raise much of their capital to proceed with these projects from individuals. Ken sponsored the $25,000 to fix up and convert the trail around the Overlook. It is a place where the hiker can stop and contemplate the beauty of nature and the eco logical importance of the Grand River as it flows by.
The history of J.M. Schneider is filled with examples of innovation in food processing to bring products to the market quicker and cheaper. J.M.’s son Norman was an accomplished mechanic who was awarded a patent in 1929 for a skinless sausage machine. Today the issues are far more complicated with the advent of genetically engineered foods and outbreaks like mad-cow disease. These issues have forced universities to look more closely at the implications of new technology. Because of Ken’s close association with the universities, he provided $100,000 towards establishing a new science and society project. He is working in cooperation with the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph and the Centre for Society, Technology and Values at the University of Waterloo to develop under graduate courses which address the ethical and societal implications of new technologies as well as creating other applied research projects on technological change.
The caring and enthusiasm Ken has expressed in these projects is a sample of his concern and creativity. He has little interest in “retiring”; it is more common to find him raising calves on his small ranch, voluntarily managing the University of Guelph University Affairs and Development Department, chairing the University of Guelph Heritage Fund Advancement Committee or the Board at Homewood Health Centre. He was also founding Chairman of the Homewood Charitable Foundation. Ken recently married Marilyn Robinson whom he met during his work at the University of Guelph. Ken has as much fun in retirement as he did when he worked full time. His enjoyment of people is obvious in all his endeavours. In this way he continues to be an example of what long term loyalty to a community means.