The boss’s Christmas gift: The first person to work at Land O’ Lakes — as a nanny

Beth Ford, the reclusive CEO of Land O’ Lakes, was recently profiled in the Times-Picayune. Ford, now 84, lives in Lake Forest, Ill., 20 miles north of Chicago, where she was born and raised….

The boss’s Christmas gift: The first person to work at Land O’ Lakes — as a nanny

Beth Ford, the reclusive CEO of Land O’ Lakes, was recently profiled in the Times-Picayune. Ford, now 84, lives in Lake Forest, Ill., 20 miles north of Chicago, where she was born and raised. In a recent phone interview with the Washington Post, Ford recalled being a nurse in a women’s facility as a young girl and being appalled at the conditions in the bathrooms.

“There was no running water. There was a bucket. The person that worked in there sat next to the bucket and she was supposed to relieve herself in that bucket when she was in a hurry,” she told me. “It’s just an eyesore to sit there in that little, tiny cubicle and have all this water running.”

With a real desire to help those in need, Ford began volunteering her time, then her income. After college, she worked as a full-time nurse at a girls’ home, and there in Mississippi she got to know a 7-year-old girl named Maureen.

“She was tall, and I was shorter, and she had braces, and I think she was brought up in poverty,” Ford told me. “And she was so innocent and happy and excited and carefree and had such talent, but she was certainly undervalued in her system of life and didn’t know her own worth and had no guidance.”

Through Maureen, Ford learned a much-needed lesson. Her story showed that children’s lives are never easy — but there is always a way to make it a little more enjoyable.

“I realized from Maureen that there were great things in this world,” Ford said. “And that I wanted to do that. So I decided to go to nursing school and then to become a nurse. And that’s what I did.”

It would be more than 50 years before Ford became Land O’ Lakes CEO. In those years, Ford and her husband were members of a church and a group called the “tea bunch.” The group was filled with women who decided they couldn’t live with themselves if they weren’t helping others. To give back, the women spent every day picking up trash and cleaned litter off the streets of the city.

“So we would go out. They really took care of it, because when they took care of it, there wasn’t a lot of trash out there,” Ford said. “Then you got the dumpsters up there, and that was a waste.”

As the dumpsters were replaced by sidewalks and walls, and then a trolley route was created, Ford and her friends decided to continue on with the work — even though the mayor wanted them to stop.

The group soon moved its efforts to Land O’ Lakes, where the soggy roads became patrolled by eight garbage pickers. Another group of women had joined, but they needed an administrator. Ford saw what was happening and was thrilled to give it a try.

“This was a real organization,” she said. “And Land O’ Lakes was a real employer for people, and so I had decided that I needed to go into management.”

Over the years, Ford would become CEO of one of the largest food service companies in the United States, Lay’s Potato Chips. She was also the owner of a number of businesses and a philanthropist, most notably to the Child Abuse Project.

She was also an activist for women’s rights, founding The Bebe Ford Charitable Foundation to help women make a contribution to the community.

In 2010, The Bebe Ford Charitable Foundation purchased Land O’ Lakes when it was on the verge of closing. Although the foundation has been running Land O’ Lakes since then, the organization will make its final major move in May. Next year, Ford plans to write a book on charitable philanthropy.

Ford will not be too busy to read, it seems. She has given about 300 speeches in the United States and in 22 countries. She plans to keep her plane schedule pretty busy, and she is already a frequent traveler, including to India, where she spent several weeks training women in a low-income school near Chennai.

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