1993 Service Optimas Award ProfileBRRuiz Food Products, Inc

April 1, 1993
Ask Ernie Moreno, vice president of human resources at Ruiz Food Products Inc., which word represents his company, and without hesitation, he'll tell you that it's familia — the Spanish word for family.

In a world of corporate cultures steeped in such power words as profit and strategy, people know California-based Ruiz Food Products as much for its emphasis on employees and employee development as for its success in the Mexican-food business.

Ruiz Food Products President and CEO Fred Ruiz started his company in 1964 in Tulare, California, with his father, Louis Ruiz. Twenty-one-year-old Fred borrowed from his mother, Rosie, recipes for such authentic Mexican foods as burritos, tacos and tamales. He also borrowed her freezer, her Mixmaster™ and some of her kitchen utensils. Louis built a small commercial stove on which to cook the food, "and we were in business," Fred Ruiz says.

During the past 29 years, Ruiz Food Products has grown from a small, family-run business, located in a 400-square-foot warehouse and employing four workers, to a large commercial company, housed in a 200,000-square-foot facility and employing more than 1,200 workers.

The minority-owned business, based in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California, wants to be a Mexican-American role model for its employees, other minority-owned businesses and the community. More than 80% of Ruiz Food Products' employees are Hispanic and speak Spanish.

The company defines itself as a family business and actively encourages the recruitment and hiring of family members, not only from the Ruiz family but also from employees' families. Family members, according to Moreno, often are among the hardest-working and most loyal employees.

The organization formed a human resources department in 1982 to move the company toward becoming a larger, more competitive business. The idea was that every employee be given advancement opportunities. The company is committed to helping workers improve their skills and abilities, both personally and professionally.

The human resources department created an on-site, corporate education center that started out as a place in which employees could learn English. The education facility has expanded into a permanent skills-learning center, where workers can get technical training (such as computer operations), build management acuity through such seminars as Getting To Know and Use Your Team Effectively and increase their literacy skills in Spanish.

Ruiz Food's HR department has become a facilitator in the process by helping employees grow both personally and professionally. For its efforts to develop a better-skilled work force to meet business needs, Personnel Journal has awarded Ruiz Food Products Inc. with the 1993 Personnel Journal Optimas Award in the Service category. The Service category honors departments that have developed a program or policy to support another constituency within the organization or in response to a specific business goal.

One of Ruiz Foods' primary goals, according to its mission statement, is to make money. It has. During the past five years, the company's annual sales have increased from $25.8 million to more than $85 million. Ruiz Foods now produces and sells more than 180 convenience and microwaveable frozen-food products primarily to clients in the Mexican-food distribution industry. Ruiz Food Products sells to and copackages its products with such retail and food service operations as McDonalds Corp., Campbell Soup Co., Stouffer Food Corp., Marie Callender's and Carl Karcher Enterprises.

Approximately 47% of the company's privately held stock belongs to members of the Ruiz family. The remainder of the stock is held in an employee stock-ownership plan (ESOP).

Ruiz Food Products is more profitable than most companies of similar size in its industry, according to Ruiz. "I believe that profitability comes from the fact that our employees care about our company. We care about our employees, and we try to teach them. Because of that, our employees work harder, they produce a better-quality product, and they take care of our assets. All of that makes us more competitive in a very competitive industry."

Educating a Hispanic work force.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the minority population in California grew by 61.1% between 1980 and 1990. The bureau also reports that the San Joaquin Valley, where Ruiz Food Products is located, ranks 19th among the top 50 most racially diverse counties in the U.S.

"Our manufacturing employee base is the Hispanic population," says Ruiz. "A lot of these people are farm workers. They have a strong work ethic, but the reality is that they lack education and communication skills." Many of the individuals also lack self-esteem. Ruiz Food Products management wants to help workers gain a sense of self-assurance through learning new skills and developing abilities. It also knows the benefit to the business of improved worker ability.

Ruiz adds: "As a manufacturer, it's good business to help employees learn because if our company is going to grow, we have to have a work force that has the skills and the education to meet our needs. If the schools aren't doing that, then we have to take charge of it. That's what we're doing."

"In the company's earlier days, when it employed fewer workers, it hired a teacher to teach English-language skills to the Spanish-speaking supervisors and managers. "We knew that we had to hone their skills, because the company was taking off at a fast pace," says Moreno. The problem was that the teacher was accustomed to a structured classroom atmosphere and was unaccustomed to having students leave in the middle of class.

"It would annoy the teacher when an employee would have to leave because of a business emergency," Moreno re-calls. "What was the priority? To learn or to work? The priority was that we needed to keep the plant running. We had to make a profit because we're a business."

"Although people were learning English in the classroom setting, the system was creating conflicts with people's work schedules. Moreno came up with the idea of an education center that would allow employees to drop in or out, as needed, to accommodate their work and off-duty schedules. Although the center had the support of the management team, Moreno needed money to get it started.

In 1989, Moreno submitted an application for Ruiz Food Products to receive a grant from the California State Employment Training Program (ETP). The ETP grants employers' funds for programs aimed at helping employees better their career opportunities.

"The company received a $1.5 million grant from the ETP to set up the center with equipment. Management used the money for computers and an ESL audiotape learning program called the Comprehensive Competency Program, which the company bought from the Ford Foundation. The funding also helped pay employees' salaries during the first year and a half after the center opened, while they took time out from work to learn.

The original education center had three components: to teach English as a second language (ESL), computer and bar-coding training for inventory purposes. The human resources department purchased long tables instead of individual desks for the learning center so that employees who had had negative experiences with a structured classroom situation would be more at ease and better able to learn.

After funding for the center ran out, the company no longer could pay employees while they attended classes. Although administrators feared that enrollment would decline when employees had to learn on their own time, enrollment increased. Attendance at the education center usually stays constant at about 50 people a day. If attendance drops below 50, the human resources department conducts a public-relations campaign to increase enrollment.

The company provides the financial support for the education center and its current staff of four, although management declines to discuss how much it costs each year. Moreno says that the company always will keep the center open and will set aside enough money to keep it operational.

Currently, the education center, which falls under the direction of human resources, focuses on two areas of learning: technical and work-related training, and personal-enrichment programs. In the area of work-related training, much of the center's emphasis is on developing group leaders (the first level of supervisors at Ruiz Foods). The first phase of training involves learning the company philosophy, how to write reports and how to handle administrative tasks.

The second phase covers such topics as how to justify buying equipment and adding more people to the work force. "We think that going through a program like that will prepare individuals better for promotion," says Juana Lacy, human resources manager.

"We're getting employees into the habit of learning how to learn."

The center also offers monthly project seminars on such topics as Management Problems of the Technical Person in a Leadership Role, Positive Communication Skills That Give You Results, Dealing with the Difficult Person and The Changing Role of Women in Leadership Positions. The seminars are taught by the company's employee assistance program (EAP) counselor, which cuts the cost of sending employees outside the organization for training. The classes are open to anyone in the organization and usually are well-attended.

Seminars that help women in the work force are especially helpful because 65% of the company's workers are women. Many women are in supervisory positions. Of the 72 group-leader positions, 57 are women and 15 are men. Women in a primarily Hispanic work force face special challenges that women who come from other cultures already may have learned to deal with, such as decision making.

"A lot of people don't know how to make decisions. If we teach them how to make decisions at work, then they carry that into their families, but sometimes that doesn't sit well with their spouses," explains Moreno. Women in the traditional Hispanic culture aren't the primary decision makers.

Moreno says that although HR strives to help employees with challenges, it isn't in the business of family counseling and leaves that task to its EAP counselor, Margarita Prado-Borrego. Prado-Borrego does a lot of individual and family counseling in Spanish and in English, and also teaches the monthly project seminars.

In addition to the basic skills that the center offered when it first opened, it now also offers Spanish-literacy classes. Employees also can get information and the tools they need to handle daily problems, such as getting a driver's license, enrolling in school, opening a checking account or buying stamps at the post office.

The human resources department monitors employees' progress in small increments. "We have graduation exercises every other month and give employees certificates of achievement," says Virginia Hansen, education and training administrator for the education center.

The certificates represent two areas: 1) attendance; and 2) levels of achievement gained in technical and personal skills and abilities. Employees set their own short-term goals.

Employees who receive certificates of achievement must make a presentation during the graduation ceremony, which Fred Ruiz always attends. "A couple of months ago, they put on a play in English about going to the post office," says Hansen. One employee was the post office clerk, and other employees played the parts of customers. "Some of these people came from Mexico and couldn't even communicate well enough to go to the post office," says Hansen. "To them, it was a real accomplishment."

Company management also recognizes these achievements as big accomplishments. "To us, a victory often is having an employee who's just beginning to speak English stand up in front of a group and say a few words. The hardest thing in learning a different language is getting over the embarrassment," says Moreno. "What we're really doing is getting employees into the habit of learning how to learn."

The company also wants to help influence the next generation of Mexican-Americans, specifically employees' sons and daughters. Many of the team members' children now are attending college. Management also is considering opening a Saturday school, modeled after Japanese and Jewish schools. On Saturdays, employees could bring their young children to the school, where the kids would learn about cultural diversity and could build their self-esteem. Moreno says the school may become a reality within a year.

Ruiz Food Products also intends to add a few more classes to the education center this year, such as preparatory courses for the general equivalency diploma (GED) and for the U.S. citizenship exams. The education center's certified staff teacher, Maria Elena Martinez, already has helped some employees prepare for the citizenship exam and often accompanies them to the swearing-in ceremony.

During the presidential election last November, Martinez instructed her classes in U.S. government while she was teaching them English. She also incorporates the Ruiz philosophy and the history of the company into the English lessons.

Some of the activities at the education center use the theater-based training approach. "Everybody who works in our system is pretty much onstage all the time," says Moreno. "We need to help people become confident."

Many of the theater-based classes focus on team-building exercises for managers and supervisors. For example, in one exercise, employees work in teams of two for a specific time period, usually 45 minutes. During that time, they must find out as much as they can about their partners. When the group reconvenes, each person presents his or her partner to the group. "The audience is there watching you, but supporting you at the same time," says Lacy. "Then the audience gives you feedback."

The company also opens the education center to potential employees in some instances. For example, one Spanish-speaking applicant never had been through an interview. "He went to the center to learn interviewing techniques," says Moreno. A few weeks later, he interviewed at the company and was hired.

Since the education center opened more than four years ago, hundreds of employees have gained new skills. Many have gone on to study at local community colleges. Managers at the company say that their education center is one of three corporate-education facilities in the U.S. and the only one that's bilingual.

Seventy-five to 80% of the employees at Ruiz Foods are promoted from within the organization. Many of the employees who hold specialty positions, however, such as research-and-development manager or mechanic, are hired from the community through local recruitment advertising. All positions, however, are posted internally. Any team member who wants to apply for a position of greater responsibility is welcome to apply for it.

HR identifies employee needs.
As the company has grown, so has the company's human resources department. Its beginnings are as humble as the company's own early days.

Twelve years ago, Connie Suarez, now human relations administrator, was hired to work in the plant, counting tortillas. Suarez had grown up in Tulare, (the same city in which Ruiz Foods originated) in a family who worked in the local fields. She had attended college for three years and worked in Southern California before returning to her hometown in 1981. Because she was bilingual and had a background in working with people, the company's vice president, Tom Colesberry, asked her if she'd take a management position. Suarez would be a liaison between employees and management. There were only 125 employees at the time.

"Originally, it wasn't planned to be a personnel office," says Suarez. "We just needed someone employees could talk to. Then in late 1982, we started developing the human resources department."

Suarez handled all the personnel matters, such as recruitment, staffing, benefits and training. Her primary job, however, was to talk with employees. "I'm able to relate to workers because I came from where they came from," says Suarez. "I also have worked in the fields. I've picked grapes and worked hard, and I wanted to change that way of life for our employees."

Within a year, other employees were hired to help with personnel issues. Suarez spent most of her days in the plant, talking with employees. The department grew from there. The human resources department split into three areas: benefits, employee relations, and education and training.

When Moreno came to the organization in 1986, there were only three people in human resources. Now there are 23. "I think that shows how important HR is here," Moreno says. The growth within human resources and the rest of the company, however, hasn't always been easy. "We've had a lot of growing pains. It has been like a roller coaster taking off," he says. He describes some of the many changes that have taken place in the company. Some changes have made it a challenging ride, such as the company's moving four times, turnover in the board of directors and the union elections. "I tell people that I've worked here six years, but I've accumulated about 18 years' worth of knowledge. It has been fulfilling," Moreno says.

Moreno was born and brought up in Visalia, California, which is approximately 15 miles from Dinuba, home of Ruiz Foods' new headquarters. Like Suarez, Moreno also comes from a family of farm workers.

Moreno has a law degree from Hastings College of Law, at the University of California at San Francisco. Moreno says that his legal background comes in handy, especially when sifting through all the new local, state and federal personnel-related laws that require company compliance. Before coming to work at Ruiz Foods, Moreno spent some time as an organizer for the United Farm Workers. He also was a community service worker for California Rural Legal Assistance and an administrator for Self Help Enterprises (an agency that helps provide housing for low-income families).

"That's the goal - to make sure that we take care of employees-whether they're Hispanic, Anglo or Filipino. Everyone is treated with respect."

Moreno's legal and unionizing background was especially helpful during a union campaign last December. Employees voted in favor of continuing with the company's nonunionized work force.

Juana Lacy, the company's HR manager, came to the company three years ago from Self Help Enterprises, where she had spent 15 years handling all the human-resources issues.

Approximately one year ago, Lacy suggested relocating the company's sanitation crew, which cleans the offices and common areas, to the HR department from the sanitation department. It was somewhat frustrating, according to Lacy, because the group of six women didn't feel appreciated or respected within the organization. During the past year, they've helped educate employees about their jobs and their importance. They soon will wear T-shirts that read Human Resources.

The HR staff also includes a hospitality coordinator. Barbara Jones is responsible for supplying food for every employee function. "Since we're a Mexican-food company, people are constantly being fed here," says Moreno. "It's a cultural custom because, in the Mexican culture, if you come to my house I'll offer you something to eat or drink. We try to carry that out at work, too."

"That's the goal — to make sure that we take care of employees — whether they're Hispanic, Anglo or Filipino. Everyone is treated with respect," Suarez explains.

The company's united spirit of respect and caring is evident in the response to a recent tragedy. While one of the employees was at work, her home burned down with her husband and two children inside. "Without our having to ask, employees raised thousands of dollars among themselves and in the community," says Suarez. The company matched their donations, and the employee received $9,000. The money helped pay for the funeral, rent for an apartment, new furniture and groceries.

How does this depth of caring become automatic? "We try to make it acceptable in our corporate culture to care," says Moreno. "Mexican people by nature are caring people." The company's slogan is A Real Mexican Food Company. "It doesn't refer to the food we make as much as it's a description of who we are," Moreno says. To make sure that team members are aware that the company culture supports a caring attitude, the HR department will introduce a program this year to publicize the company's corporate philosophy statement, according to Moreno.

Adding to the company's cultural diversity, Ruiz Foods has hired employees who are Filipino, Laotian, African-American and Indian. "We find that many of them are going to the education center to learn Spanish," says Suarez.

Employees don't have to be able to speak English at Ruiz Food Products. Once they gain a first-level leadership position such as group leader, however, they must enroll in English classes. They must become fluent in English to be considered for positions of greater responsibility. "We encourage people to learn English because, as you grow in any company, eventually you're going to have to learn English," says Moreno.

Because being able to speak English isn't a condition of employment, human resources professionals at Ruiz Foods sometimes have to spend extra time with employees during orientation and safety training, making sure that the the new hires understand the essential functions of their jobs and the safety procedures. Often, HR must find an employee who speaks the same language as the trainee to serve as an interpreter.

It's important to the company's HR staff to keep abreast of the latest trends in human resources. It's important to them as individuals. It's also in the company's corporate philosophy statement: "We will continue to be a leader in our industry, always aware of new trends."

Moreno reads a lot and attends HR seminars to learn about the latest developments in human resources management, as does his boss, Tom Colesberry, the executive vice president. Having Colesberry attend the seminars makes Moreno's job a lot easier. "I don't have to explain to him what other people are doing in HR. He already knows, so we can go from there," he says.

Moreno participates in the company's strategic planning meetings. "The other nice thing is that the vice president of operations is a former personnel manager — so she understands the people aspects of the business. Everyone sees employee issues as a priority. There's really no problem convincing people in upper management to do what needs to be done in HR because everyone's in agreement," Moreno says.

During the company's strategic planning, management decided to make it a goal for every department manager to use HR's help more often. "The idea is for them to combine their weaknesses with our strengths and, at the same time, teach us about their departments," says Moreno. One example is monitoring computer training for a department, such as research and development. "We might not understand a complex AS 400 system, but we can monitor the result of the training and get people to make the behavioral changes necessary," Moreno explains.

As it was in the beginning days of the company's HR department, individuals in human resources still keep in close contact with employees and people in management to find out what their needs are. Moreno describes his job as one part future planning and one part walking around. "We wander and talk with each other," says Moreno. "The other day, I spent an hour talking with a research-and-development manager. People are creative around here. We sit down and just start talking. It usually starts with someone saying, 'I feel frustrated.' We talk about solutions, and if we need to bring other people into the discussion, we do."

For now, Ruiz Foods is a single-site operation. Moreno says that currently it's fairly easy for HR to have face-to-face meetings with team members and supervisory staff. He says that he thinks this will continue to work, even if the company grows larger.

The reason? The company culture encourages people to communicate what they need to get their jobs done. HR intends to remain flexible enough to accommodate senior-management plans, plant-operations needs and employees' requests. "I didn't want this to be an HR department that said, 'No, this is policy; we can't do that,'" Lacy says. "It's our job to provide customer service to people — whether internal or external customers. If Joe Santana, a plant manager, needs something, we do whatever we can to help because he's the one making the product. Customer service is very important." HR has its hands in practically every area of the organization. "We like to stay that way because we feel that we can have a positive impact on the entire company," Lacy says.

Moreno says that he also holds monthly staff meetings to discuss any issues that aren't resolved during the impromptu gatherings.

Another way that HR and senior managers discover what employees are thinking about is through roundtable discussions. Colesberry, the executive VP, suggested the discussion groups six years ago. "He said, 'The suggestion boxes aren't working,'" remembers Moreno. "'Why don't we get the people in and feed them — it's always our culture to feed employees — and let them tell us what they're thinking?'"

Thirty team members attend the monthly discussion groups. In addition to employees, the vice president and manager of operations attend, and so do Colesberry and Moreno. Employees can ask any questions of each other or of managers. The only rule is that they must show respect toward each other and must leave personal grudges outside.

Topics of discussion at the roundtable meetings have changed as time has passed. "It's really neat because at first employees talked about the little things, the day-to-day complaints," Moreno explains. Now employees also ask more sophisticated questions such as, "What's happening with the McDonald's account?" Some recent suggestions that came out of the roundtable discussions were:

  • Moving the trucks out of the employee parking area
  • Investigating the possibility of replacing the forklift tires with new tires that grip the warehouse floor better
  • Using a different kind of glove in the plant's food-preparation area
  • Posting the organization's quarterly earnings.

During the discussions, the managers encourage employees to talk about themselves. They may speak any language they want to, whether it's English, Spanish or another language.

"At first employees talked about the little things, the day-to-day complaints. Now employees also ask questions such as,'What's happening with the McDonald's account?'"

"We want to hear other languages. We want to know what they sound like," says Moreno. In addition to English and Spanish, he has counted nine languages being spoken during the meetings in the past, although English and Spanish are the primary languages spoken.

During one meeting, an employee spoke Portuguese. Others in the room later commented on how much it sounded like Spanish. "It helps people appreciate each other," says Moreno. If employees are unable to understand each other, he encourages them to go to the education center. "The key to the roundtable discussions is communication," says Moreno. If employees are in the same room and can't communicate, Moreno tells them to go and learn the language they don't understand. "Don't expect somebody else to learn your language just to make your life easier. You go out and learn theirs," Moreno says.

To highlight various employee benefits, such as health insurance, the ESOP, the retirement plan or the education center, the HR department sponsors monthly campaigns in the lounge and gives employees more information about these programs. "We developed a marketing program that highlights a different promotion each month," says Lacy.

In addition, the HR department also asks the company's various departments to promote themselves to the work force. Each week, a different work group, such as operations or sanitation, staffs a booth in the lounge or leaves information for other employees.

For example, the sanitation personnel dressed up a coatrack to look like a sanitation worker. They pinned a photo of each of the team members onto the rack. They also wrote a statement describing what their jobs entail — including the equipment they use — which they left on a table near the coatrack. "That was interesting," says Lacy. "Even I learned something new."

The company's personnel managers emphasize that they're always open to new ideas that help them and their employees work better, work smarter and work out their personal and professional challenges. CEO Ruiz says, "Our HR department is more than just a traditional HR department. It constantly tries to do things to create opportunities for our workers, whether it's having someone explain to our employees how to open a bank account or starting an education center. The people in HR are special to our employees."

What's another word that represents the company's mission? "Unidos," says Suarez and adds, "The company is united."

While diversity and literacy issues continue to perplex even the smartest of U.S. companies, Ruiz Food Products may have found a way to go one step beyond. By focusing on individual differences, they've discovered that diversity isn't the issue — people are.

Personnel Journal, April 1993, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 120-135.