Parting Thoughts: Paul Downes, former president and CEO of Mountaire

Paul Downes in his garage.
Paul Downes in his garage. Photo by Eric Crossan

Paul Downes retired as President and CEO of Mountaire Farms in late 2018 after 40 years of service with the nation’s sixth-largest poultry company. Paul joined Mountaire in 1978 as a flock supervisor. He eventually would lead all of live operations, and in 2009 was named Chief Operating Officer. In 2010, Paul became President of Mountaire Farms, followed by CEO in 2012. Under Paul’s leadership, Mountaire experienced the five most successful and profitable years of the company’s more than 100 years in business.

At what point in your life did you realize you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?

I was promoted to be the Vice President of Live Operations in 1990, when I was 38. It was pretty clear that we had a great culture at Mountaire Farms of treating people well, and I was able to try and help instill that in my team and everyone I came into contact with at the company.

How do you want to be remembered?

A humble leader with high integrity. Someone who empowered other people, treated others with respect, but also admitted his own mistakes.

What’s more important in leadership: Make their strengths stronger or eliminate their weaknesses?

I think it’s important to help make their strengths stronger, identify weaknesses, and surround yourself with people who can help fill those gaps. When I was made a Vice President, I knew one of my weaknesses was organization. I talked to my boss and he insisted I hire an administrative assistant, who helped me focus my energies on my strengths, thereby eliminating that weakness.

What’s the greatest compliment you ever received?

Any compliment I get from my family, especially my children. It’s gratifying for them to be able to see what you have to offer.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

I had some amazing mentors in Dave Pogge, former CEO, and Ronnie Cameron, the owner of Mountaire Farms. They taught me early on to always treat others the way you want to be treated. I paid attention to how they treated people, and I’ve tried to emulate that.

What lessons did you learn from your biggest success and your biggest failure?

We have a saying at Mountaire — “You have to inspect what you expect.” So you can set expectations, but you’d better follow up and make sure that the team is making it happen. Everybody needs a little accountability.

When you hear the word “successful,” who or what do you think of? I think of UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, but not just because he was successful on the court. He taught his players how to be successful off the court as well. He was a mentor to those players, and they all went on to achieve success on their own. To me, being successful means loving what you do while helping others along the way. And always
looking for the good in all people.

What’s your favorite quote?

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” President Harry S. Truman

What advice would you give your 20-25-30-year-old self? Where were you at the time? I would tell myself to work harder at building long-lasting relationships. The key to success is having relationships with people you can rely on. I was 26 years old when I became a flock supervisor at Mountaire Farms.

What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves? How can I add value to a relationship, or a project?

To keep an open mind and look for ways to help, not criticize or make excuses.

What was the key to your success?

I think much of my success was because I wasn’t afraid to ask for help. I sought out people with experience and learned everything I could. In most cases, you don’t know what you don’t know. So never be afraid to learn from those who do.

When you feel overwhelmed, get distracted, or lose your focus, what do you do?

I pray. I have a deep faith that has helped guide me throughout my life.

What’s inspiring you right now? I would have to say my family. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to spend quality time with them. I recently drove four hours to see my 5-year-old grandson and my 7-year-old granddaughter play basketball, and it meant the world to me. I want to be a better father, grandfather, husband and friend.

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to traveling with my wife Pat, who I’ve been married to for almost 46 years, and spending time with family. I will continue to contribute to Mountaire as a Board member. Ronnie Cameron has been a great leader, and an outstanding mentor and friend to me for 40 years, so I will always be Team Mountaire and be available to help out whenever he needs me.

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