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Recipe for success: Alan Wilson, retired president & CEO, McCormick & Company

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(May 5, 2017—ANNAPOLIS, Md.) When your first job is as an Army officer, you bring a certain flavor to your leadership. That works out perfectly for a man who winds up at the helm of one of the world’s most successful food companies.

“That kind of gave me a foundation of leadership,” said Alan Wilson, the recently retired CEO of McCormick & Company, “of accountability, of finding a way to make a positive difference.”

On May 17, Wilson will be inducted into the Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s Business Hall of Fame—an elite group of individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership, vision, character, courage and community commitment.

When Wilson became CEO of McCormick, the company had been on the New York Stock Excahnge for less than a decade and was taking on unprecedented debt with the biggest acquisition in its history taking on Lawry’s, a seasonings and marinades company. To get Federal Trade Commission approval, it had to sell its Season-All business to Morton’s Salt.

Then the Great Recession hit.

Amid worldwide economic tremors, Wilson’s goal for McCormick was a more global reach. The 128-year-old spice company grew into new markets, including Poland and India, and expanded in China. Ultimately, Wilson said, it doubled its presence in emerging markets in 10 years.

“It’s really about identifying and adapting to the current situation, and being nimble enough to succeed in a different environment,” he said.

To accomplish that kind of growth, Wilson had to globalize what were then regionally focused operations.

“What we wanted to do is take the best ideas, wherever they happen to be in the world, to be able to bring those in and replicate them, either new ideas or better ways of operating.”

The team mentality is typical for Wilson, but his colleagues at McCormick say the trademark humility is just a sign of his leadership style.

“Management is doing things right,” said retired McCormick Group VP for the Asia/Pacific Zone Jim Albrecht, Ph.D. “Leadership is doing the right things. That’s what Alan brought to McCormick at that point in time."

While having the right mind for business—cutting costs, streamlining processes, developing new products—was important, Albrecht said, it wasn’t what made Wilson such a great CEO. That, he said, was about an ingredient that can’t be harvested.

“I saw... his ability to empathize with not only our employees, but our customers and our prospective partners,” Albrecht said. “That’s something you really have to work at. You don’t get that out of a textbook. You have to care about understanding the other person.”

That, plus trust, made the transition to the new president and CEO much easier.

“There was a long period of time when Alan was my boss, but he never made it feel that way,” Lawrence Kurzius said. “I always felt like a colleague. He gave me his latitude to make decisions, a lot of freedom to act. He always wanted to know what I thought was the right thing to do, and he usually let me do it.”

With those qualities, it’s natural that Wilson is also a leader in giving back. He and his wife, Wendy, are very active with the United Way, and were named its Philanthropists of the Year in 2013. They’ve helped build playgrounds at urban schools through the Women’s Education Alliance, and they’re the namesakes for the career center at Wilson’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee. The couple funded several scholarships there, and Wilson was once UT’s Alumni Board president. Now, he chairs the Board of Governors at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County.

“I had an example of parents who basically gave back through their entire life,” Wilson said. “It was really about service to others and to God. That set the tone for what I wanted to be, and I wanted to blend what I did in the business role with helping to make a difference for people.”

That service has carried over into Wilson’s retirement. He still sits on several boards, including a few for community and charitable organizations. He said he is trying to do things he has never found time to do.

For the former CEO of McCormick & Company, variety is still the spice of life.

The 2017 Maryland Business Hall of Fame Awards will be held Wednesday, May 17 at the Hilton Baltimore BWI Airport Hotel. Wilson will be inducted along with Patricia Brown of Johns Hopkins HealthCare and Charlene M. Dukes, Ph.D., president of Prince George’s Community College.