Ron Foster announced Thursday that he will step down as president and chief executive officer of Foster Farms, the poultry company founded by his grandparents 75 years ago.
Foster, 56, will remain an owner and board member with Foster Farms, which has a vast chicken processing plant next to its Livingston headquarters and a pair of turkey plants in Turlock.
The business grew 70 percent over the 11 years Foster was at the helm, according to a news release. He had to deal over the past year and a half with a salmonella outbreak tied to raw chicken from Livingston and two Fresno plants. Federal authorities said it sickened at least 634 people, but they noted that the company carried out extensive measures to reduce future risk.
“I have greatly enjoyed the past 11 years as your CEO,” Foster said in a letter to employees. “During this period, we have witnessed some of the most challenging and some of the most rewarding times in our company’s history. I am confident that Foster Farms is positioned to do great things.”
Foster will remain as president and CEO until the company completes the search for his successor, the release said. He was not available for comment Thursday.
Max and Verda Foster founded Foster Farms at a ranch west of Waterford in 1939. Two years later, they started Foster Farms Dairy, now known as Crystal Creamery but still under family ownership. Ron Foster was its president before moving to the poultry business in 2003.
Foster Farms is the top-selling brand of poultry in the West, produced by about 12,000 people at ranches and plants in seven states. It is among the largest employers in the northern San Joaquin Valley, with about 3,500 workers in Livingston and 1,300 in Turlock.
Foster Farms does not publicly detail its finances, but executives told The Bee last year that annual sales were running about $2.3 billion. They said the salmonella issue caused an initial drop of 25 percent, but income has recovered.
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto, said Ron Foster has enjoyed being a “hands-on” leader at the company and also is effective at dealing with government issues. Mattos noted the effort to keep rivals from putting a “natural” label on saltwater-infused chicken, along with the recent salmonella issue.
“Ron reached out and was able to educate the elected officials on what Foster Farms was doing,” he said. “I think the fact that he is going to stay on the board is good.”
Foster Farms produces hundreds of chicken and turkey items, from whole raw birds to deli meats, breaded strips and corn dogs. The release said more fresh and prepared products will be launched in 2015 as part of a five-year growth plan.
Despite the expansion of plants in the Pacific Northwest and South, Foster Farms’ core continues to be the northern Valley. It has an especially large presence in Livingston, where the City Council in July presented Foster with a key to the city.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do is treat all our employees like family,” he said that night. “Our people are what make us successful day in and day out. Our family feels very blessed to have their support.”