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A conversation with Lead NY alumnus Ron Ramstad

By Larry Van De Valk
  • Department of Global Development
  • Agriculture
  • Field Crops
  • Food
  • Global Development
  • Natural Resources

Lead NY is for committed leaders in the agriculture and food industries who wish to step up and make a difference in their community. Lead NY Executive Director Larry Van De Valk sat down with Ron Ramstad (Class 5) for a conversation about leadership, working in New York state and beyond, and his advice on building a company from the ground up.

For starters, why don’t you tell us a little more about Emil’s Organics, your role there, and how it came to be

In 1995, I left my position as Marketing Director for a midsized poultry company in Upstate NY. For a year, I worked with a venture capital company evaluating and guiding food companies. Then in 1996, an opportunity in Philadelphia, PA as the CEO of a financially strapped deli company came up. The facility, staff, and financial position were in a horrible condition. I had to remove all executives and start from ground zero. I rebuilt the team, facility, and became profitable within 2 months. During the years, we were able to change from 3 SKUs for food service customers to over 75 SKUs in the retail food market. The company entered the Organic world in 2003, which was years ahead of the industry. We rebuilt the facility to become the one of the top-rated facilities in the area. This was accomplished by using the highest level of sophisticated equipment and technology. During this time all growth and improvements were accomplished by reinvestment of profits and no investment from partners. From my start in 1996 to the sale in 2019, sales increased 5 fold. The decision to sell was driven by the extreme competition in the organic sector by billion-dollar companies and high value of the real estate.

Although Emil’s was your primary business enterprise, you have a lot of other “irons in the fire” – you have an organic berry operation in Warners, NY, and a consulting company through which you have worked coast to coast, for example – please give us a little summary of some of these other enterprises you are involved in.

Three years ago, I knew that I was going to sell Emil’s. While I loved working in the deli meat industry, it was time to think of what to do next. I knew with my experiences, that I had the skills to develop a new business. When looking into this, I heard about a specialty berry that was being produced in Iowa. I went to visit several farms in Iowa and talked to the growers. What I found was a product that has very unique health benefits, but the farmers were having difficulty selling the products. With that I determined I could build my market for products from this berry. However, I firmly believed I needed to understand and grow my own berries (Aronia). With this, I found a 35-acre farm in Warners, NY. With a partner, our families planted 25,000 seedlings, put in a vast irrigation system, and picked tons of rocks from the field. This year we received our first organic certification on the farm. I started talking to people at Cornell regarding how they could help our organic Aronia berry farm. They were fantastic about introducing me to several great people. This enabled me to get exposure to the potential markets faster than I had expected. With that information, we decided I needed to harvest this year, so we could get a jump on product and market development. So, within 2 days of making this decision, I was picking up a borrowed specialty harvester from an Aronia berry grower in Nebraska. I drove it across county to our farm and had a very successful first harvest. We are now in the final stages of product development and hope to be presenting to potential customer the first of the new year. Meanwhile last year while I was completing the Emils transition, I was contacted by a buyer of a major meat company who wanted me to fix their meat thawing process. While I really wasn’t looking to get into the consulting business, I informed him I would only do this if I actually could make an impact on their overall business. They agreed and I named my new company: Solutions by A CEO.

On my first day on the site, I uncovered a huge weakness in their food safety program. Sixteen weeks later I had completed a full reorganization of this department and functions within. I have since been hired to look at the other 25 food divisions that this company owns.

Though your berry operation is in NY, Emil’s is based in Philadelphia and your consulting work has taken you across the country, so you are one of a handful of our alumni whose post-LeadNY career really has taken you out-of-state. Any comments on how your LeadNY experience may have helped plug you in to more national industry networks, or broadened your thinking and aspirations beyond New York’s borders? Did LeadNY help prepare you to branch out like this?

LeadNY experiences have been instrumental in my success. The exposure to all of the local to national governments was one of the key elements. In Philadelphia, it was essential to learn the government leaders and how they could help me getting through the political system of Philadelphia. During my career in Philadelphia, I truly beat City Hall four times due to this knowledge of how to work through this political monster.

Lead NY showed that you must always be learning, meeting new people and networking. Networking works both ways. You can’t always be the taker; you must be paying forward. I never missed an opportunity to take a risk and talk with someone new.

Traveling to different plants, going to conventions and even joining a CEO Forum (which I hated taking time going to, but always benefited from the monthly meetings). I realized that as a midsize company, I needed to build strong relationships in the meat procurement world and the equipment supplier world. I remember going to one of my first conventions where all meat buyers and sellers met. I was like the new kid in school, trying to get the attention of the cool kids in school. I just kept on going and eventually I was accepted and ended up being one of the industry experts. I also realized that I didn’t have the economic power with equipment companies. I used the same strategy, but focused on equipment companies where I could get to the CEO.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share for our younger, aspiring leaders that may have aspirations to follow a similar career path as yours?

You must always do your homework. When going into any situation, it is imperative that you know as much or more than who you are engaging. This means always asking, learning, and if you don’t know something say so. It is also critical that you work diligently to think prior to speaking. Set personal standards as how you conduct yourself.

What is your favorite memory (or two) from your LeadNY experience?

I would have to say it was our last trip. It wasn’t out of the country, as most groups do now, it was in Iowa. While initially I wasn’t excited due to the fact I grew up there, the group was extremely engaged with people we met. However, the best was when several farmers got out to the bus to take dirt samples home. The other important fact was taking time to socialize after meetings. It is important to remember what you can learn over a beer to two.

Any other comments you like to share?

While I left New York State for a while, it is now great to be back in New York. I will be splitting my time between upstate NY and my residence in Evergreen, Colorado. I live on a mountain and love it every day. I am looking forward to hearing from fellow classmates. Have a Great Holiday.

Interested in Lead NY? Discover more about our leadership development academy at the Lead NY website.  

Ron Ramstad

Ron Ramstad (Class 5) is former CEO and President of Emil’s Organics and now managing partner of Cobbles Stone Organic Aronia Farms and CEO of Solutions by a CEO.

A man in a wet field

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