CEO of billion dollar company gives the keys to success


Jackie Norman/Iowa State Daily

CEO Kenneth Sullivan gave a lecture Sep 13 about Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest pig pork producer in the world, to a packed audience in Gerdin. The lecture was so crowded that some students had to be turned away due to lack of space.

Dawit Tilahun

On Wednesday, Kenneth Sullivan came to Iowa State talk to students about his path towards success and what has allowed him to achieve his goals.

“The idea behind this series is to give our students the opportunity to really hear what it is like in the corner office,” said College of Business Dean David Spalding.

Kenneth Sullivan is the president and CEO of Smithfield Foods Inc. Smithfield Foods holds the largest market share of the bacon industry with sales amounting to $15 billion and also having a large involvement in Iowa States food services.

The CEO Series features CEOs from different industries talking to students about their story of success showing how students can direct their lives towards a similar position.

“You need to keep moving forward,” said Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods.

Keep moving forward, as described by Sullivan, is not dwelling on your prior loses or achievements. Forward momentum is looking into the future and moving forward towards accomplishing your next goal.

“If your past accomplishments loom large in the rear view mirror, then you’re not going fast enough,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan further explains that there wasn’t anything special about him. Prior to being a CEO, Sullivan has worked as a donut salesman, a roofer, dishwasher, delivery man, shoe salesman, laborer, CPA and more.

When asked how to find opportunity, Sullivan answered, “you have to create opportunity, why? Because it is more within your control.” What allowed him to succeed were really two important traits.

“The two things I’ve found to be most important are self-reliance and attitude,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan explained that you have to understand that no one owes you anything. It is your job to go and make something of yourself, not the worlds job to appeal to your better interest.

“Success comes much easier when you realize this,” Sullivan said.

Promoting a positive attitude full of energy and enthusiasm will take you far. Having a can-do attitude rather than a no-can-do attitude will take you far. You have to see the purpose in what you are doing and learn to walk with purpose. 

“Try not to make the same mistake twice,” Sullivan said.

Most successful people do not make the same mistake twice. Sullivan further elaborated that once is a mistake, but twice is a conscious decision. Sullivan briefly touched on his personal experience with his wife’s family, but refrained from going into detail, due to the context of the story.

“There are different kinds of smarts,” Sullivan said.

Through working with traditional book-smart co-workers, Sullivan learned that a skill that many people lack are social skills. Learning how to engage people in conversation, proper writing, and body language are all key to cultivating relationships.

Learn to talk, write, care, walk with a purpose, and smile, Sullivan said.

“Business is no more complicated than a lemonade stand,” Sullivan said. Regardless of where you work, know how your business works, how it makes money.

Like a lemonade stand, you have to buy inputs and then sell your product, find customers, and sell for profit. Know it all and you could find your way to securing the corner office.

“I can see how the keys to success he mentioned will help me in the Career Fair interviews, the employers are more interested in what I will do for them in the future, rather than what I did in the past,” said Jack Shopbell a sophomore in mechanical engineering.