1. Money

A CEO Ahead of the SRI Curve

By February 23, 2009

I’ve been doing some research on another project about one of the business world’s big names from the 1960s and 1970s, who was also ahead of his time when it came to corporate social responsibility.

Edward Gelsthorpe began his career at Bristol-Myers Co. and Colgate Palmolive Co., but made his reputation as one of the country’s best marketers as the head of Ocean-Spray Cranberries and then Hunt-Wesson Foods, now a part of ConAgra. If you like cranapple juice, Gelsthorpe was the guy who introduced it, along with a number of other products that really made today’s cranberry industry. Then he moved to Hunt-Wesson, where he is credited with introducing popular products such as Hunt’s Snack Pack, Skillet dinners, Manwich Sandwich Sauce, and Big John’s Beans and Fixin’s.

But more than that, while he was selling hundreds of millions of dollars in products, he was pushing Corporate America to recognize its broader responsibility beyond making a buck. In a 1971 interview, while president of Hunt-Wesson, he said “American businessmen are just beginning to recognize the responsibilities – social, moral, human responsibilities – they have, and I’m fighting to make our company and others like us realize responsibilities to the community and to the nation as a whole, as well as stockholders and employees.”

By then Hunt-Wesson had already implemented a program with Ralphs Grocery Company in Los Angeles to help poorer consumers in inner-city areas get the highest food values for their limited incomes. Hunt-Wesson paid the cost of hiring nine African-American women as shopper guides, who were then assigned to three Ralphs units in Watts on a part-time basis. Hunt-Wesson had also funded a $25,000 program in Newark aimed at making inner-city Martland Hospital more attractive to residents who had a negative view of the center.

Later would come a free “computerized” (remember it was the 70s and technology was just taking off) menu program that offered nutritional guidance for budget-conscious families. More than 1 million families replied nationwide and Hunt-Wesson spent $2.5 million on the program.

When a Hunt-Wesson employee suggested the company plant a tree in burned-out forests for every coupon consumers return to the company, Gelsthorpe backed it and got the U.S. Forest Service involved. When he learned that children were cutting themselves on the lids of Hunt-Wesson Snack Pack deserts, the company improved the packaging and ran full-page national ads explaining how to open the can safely.

Finally, he was outspoken against the war in Vietnam, completely out of character for the typical corporate CEO at the time. Usually they were concerned about the public backlash on their company. In 1970 Gelsthorpe signed his name to a published letter which said Hunt-Wesson would not discriminate against veterans who receive “less-than-honorable discharges or resistors who have served prison terms for their moral opposition to the war.” The letter angered several veterans groups, including the American Legion, who threatened a boycott of all Hunt-Wesson products. Gelsthorpe met with the leaders of the American Legion, as well as other veterans' organizations to explain his position. No national boycott occurred.

These days he’s in his late 80s and retired in Massachusetts. But through his words and the actions his company took, Gelsthorpe could still serve as a role model for corporate leaders of today.

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