Spotlight — 29 February 2008
Wilson Has a Taste for Leadership

America’s palate is becoming more sophisticated, and Alan Wilson is big into the business of supplying the spices to satisfy the nation’s taste buds. Wilson (Knoxville ’80) is the new CEO and president of McCormick & Company Inc., the world’s largest spice producer, headquartered in Baltimore with operations in such diverse locales as India and France. These international operations require a geographically nimble CEO–Wilson travels about 35 percent of the time. Recent destinations have included China, India, Australia, and countries of the European Union.

“We have twenty-six plants around the world, and I want to get to each of them at least every other year,” the South Carolina native says. “It’s about being with employees–and I always visit local retailers.”

Besides his copious management responsibilities, Wilson also stays on top of taste trends. In the U.S. “we have a heavy Asian influence coming at us,” along with other international influences melding with the Asian. “‘Sweet and hot’ is becoming very popular. One of my favorites is cinnamon chipotle,” he says. Also on the trendy list is sea salt of varied colors and provenances.

“We are constantly doing research on taste trends, and we issue an annual flavor forecast,” Wilson says. Chefs team up with McCormick to forecast flavor combinations and devise recipes for both consumers and industrial customers.

In other countries, McCormick manufactures products that cater to local tastes, for example, dessert toppings in France and Aeroplane Jelly, a gelatin product that’s popular in Australia. “In the Philippines, we sell banana ketchup, which is a local favorite,” says Wilson. McCormick owns several other brands popular in the U.S., like Zatarain’s, Old Bay, and Thai Kitchen.

Wilson has been hands-on in the process of updating the spice display racks and the packaging consumers see at their local supermarkets. “Spice bottles are small and you almost have to pick up each one. We wanted to make purchasing easier for consumers. The new displays are also easier to change out when we introduce new products twice a year.”

Wilson graduated in communications (“I thought I wanted to be a broadcaster”), served in the army, and worked for Procter & Gamble before joining McCormick in 1993.

He says he wants to continue to grow the company. Many parts of the world could be ripe for expansion, with Eastern Europe on the short list. He’s proud of McCormick’s history of social responsibility and points to agricultural sustainability programs the company began 25 years ago. As he wrestles with cost and personnel decisions, he tries to be ever mindful about consistently communicating McCormick’s priorities. Wilson says he establishes professional objectives and is graded on his performance like everyone else in the company. “I pride myself on beating my objectives,” he says.

In a position like his, most days are workdays. But he says with electronic communication, “I can do my job from almost anywhere.” He and his wife, Wendy, are parents of two sons–Chris, a high-school senior, and Ryan, a student at Vanderbilt University. In his scant spare time, he likes to golf, fish, ski–and cook. He reads spy novels and management books and favors country music and Southern rock. “All the best music was made before nineteen-eighty-five,” he opines.

Wilson says he always knew he wanted to run a business and has long been interested in international commerce. In the back of his mind may have been an idea for a business in Europe. Certainly he didn’t envision being president and CEO of a global corporation at age 50, but he’s delighted at the turn his career has taken.

“McCormick is a great place to work. I’m young enough to have a lot of energy, and I want to enhance the company’s top-tier industry status.”

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