R.W. NelsonChairman of the Board
R.W. Nelson couldn’t have known that a company he founded 50 years ago to develop innovative agricultural products would one day touch more than a billion lives worldwide, or that it would one day be unrivaled worldwide for its expertise at the molecular level.
Kemin Industries began on a shoestring in 1961 in a vacant wool barn on Des Moines’ outskirts. With five children to feed, clothe, and educate, R.W. and his wife, Mary, invested their $10,000 savings account in the business, which offered two product lines – mold inhibitors and flavorings – that would be sold throughout the Midwest. They had strength behind them – both in the Nelson and Kelleher family lineages, as well as in their work ethic and ability to scale obstacles. The business grew quickly, exporting to its first overseas markets before the decade was out.
Kemin has quadrupled in growth since its humble beginnings in 1961, and now manufactures and distributes over 500 specialty ingredients used in the feed and food industries and the health, nutrition, and beauty markets. Products containing molecules extracted mainly from plants run the gamut from the animal food flavorings that propelled the company’s early growth to grocery store staples to FloraGlo® Lutein, a purified form of lutein found in marigolds that is considered to reduce the risk of —and, among some individuals, progression of — age-related macular degeneration.
By all accounts, R.W. has earned the right to take it easy. Yet he remains a vital leader playing an integral role in the company’s success. “My motivations to go to work every day at Kemin are several,” R.W. says. “I believe work is a privilege. The fact that my health is good and I can continue to make a contribution to Kemin continues to give me a lot of personal satisfaction.
“Over the years, Kemin has made contributions to the quality of life to many people,” he says. “Each year, we contract with about 25,000 farmers around the world to grow marigolds and other specialty crops. We contribute to over half of those farmers annual incomes when we purchase the specialty crops they grow for Kemin. We know that extra income the farmers earn has given their children a better education. We know that if our farmer growers are living better because of the crops they grow for us, we continue to receive a lot of satisfaction from that ongoing process.”
Throughout its history, R.W. has guided the growth for Kemin with a deft and pragmatic hand that has allowed the company to expand both domestically and internationally with very little financial risk. Those stalwart business practices – tiptoeing into a market and establishing sales before making permanent investments – put Kemin in a financial position that fueled its rapid growth in the 1970s.
Those early successes based on a parallel of good science and good business practices are a microcosm for how Kemin does business today. The founding values of hard work, integrity, and a moral obligation to improve the lives of consumers and employees alike are omnipresent in the company’s 14 business units, which together share a commitment to improving the health and nutrition of the world in the most sustainable way possible.
R.W. holds four patents and has been recognized worldwide for his innovations, including citations from Presidents Nixon and Carter – the President’s “E” Certificate for Exports in 1971, and the President’s “E” Star Award for Excellence in Export in 1978. He also received the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Export Award in 1972, the State of Iowa Economic Impact Award in 1987, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur Achievement Iowa award in 1991, and the Iowa Biotechnology Association’s Entrepreneur Achievement Biotechnology Award in 2004.
He was inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame in 2006.
R.W. has served or continues to serve on more than a dozen boards and committees for industry trade groups, banks, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Drake University, and private primary and secondary schools in the Des Moines Diocese, the American Institute of Entrepreneurs, the Greater Des Moines Committee, a group of business luminaries founded in 1907 to share information about important topics in the community and nation. He is a member of the American Chemical Society and the American Feed Industry Association.
A graduate of Dowling Catholic High School, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology and chemistry from Drake University. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1945 to 1947, and was honorably discharged as a corporal. He earned service ribbons while deployed in the Philippines at the close of World War II.