Goya Foods’ director of HR Tony Rico has transformed his department with innovative ideas, new technology, and good old-fashioned human relations
As the only bilingual guy in the neighborhood, Tony Rico would often translate papers—labor contracts, health insurance, and workers’ compensation documents—for workers from the local textile mills and factories who came into his father’s Cuban restaurant, La Pola, at lunchtime. That was back in high school. Since then, Rico has held human-resources positions at the New York City Mayor’s Office, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Brooklyn Public Library. In 2004, he joined Goya Foods, Inc., often referred to as La Gran Familia Goya, as director of human resources. In this role, he has dedicated himself to modernizing, automating, negotiating, and generally ensuring that the labor side of things at the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States runs smoothly.
Better Hiring Practices & Policies
Rico is more familiar than most people with the importance of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA); his daughter, born prematurely, spent eight months in the hospital and required several surgeries. Not surprisingly, when he came on as HR director, Rico aggressively instituted FMLA policies at all of Goya’s locations across the United States. He also brought the company up to speed on better hiring practices, educating his staff on how to interview prospective employees, how to prepare Equal Employment Opportunity reports, what kind of data should and should not be collected, and more.
“One of the things we implemented right away was HRIS, Human Resource Information System,” he recalls. “Basically it consolidated the HR records into a central system that we could pull information from. Before, the president could ask me how many employees we had, and by the time I could get him the number, it would have changed. Now, I can get that information right away. We have instituted real-time reporting for many elements of the business.”
Adding New Departments
Among his many responsibilities, Rico is also charged with making sure that existing departments within Goya are appropriate to the company’s objectives. In some cases, he has discovered a need—and created a new department to fill it. Among the departments developed under Rico are logistics, research and development (R&D), and quality control. The functions of each existed at Goya’s various locations, but loosely; Rico centralized the functions, formed departments, and hired and trained dedicated staff for each.
In the R&D department, for example, the staff is constantly researching new foods and flavors—the company boasts food lines for virtually every country in Latin America and the Caribbean—and is eager to have them taste tested. “They contact HR and say it would be nice [if] somebody familiar with the food from that country [could] try it,” Rico says. “So, I go into the system, search for any Salvadoran employees, for instance, and ask if they can come to the kitchen lab to critique new Salvadoran products. I can tap into a specific population within the company, and I can get that specific with logistics and quality control.”
About four years ago, Rico helped the company transition from an outdated defined-benefit plan to a 401K defined-contribution plan. During that time, the plan’s assets have grown at a healthy clip, from zero to about $15 million, and the voluntary participation rate has risen from 38 percent to more than 60 percent. And while that’s still about 15 percentage points from Rico’s goal, he’s pleased that participation is fairly high and increasing. In addition, he has set up a relationship with a brokerage firm which provides free financial advice to Goya employees—everything from how to save for college tuition to developing a customized financial plan. Not one to leave stones unturned, Rico has also brought representatives from the Social Security Administration to discuss retiree benefits. “A lot of education, time, and energy has gone into this project,” Rico says. “I travel to our facilities around the country to talk to employees about the advantages of this plan and how they can benefit from it. My staff jokes that I go on the 401k tour twice a year.”
Few companies can say they haven’t docked raises during recent tough economic times. But, according to Rico, Goya can. “By the same token, we’ve had to make changes to make our operation more competitive,” he says. “The thing is, Goya is a different animal. It is run like a family, and that’s why labor relations here are doing so well.” Nationwide, the average length of a Goya employee’s service is 13 years. In the company’s headquarters, Rico says, there are people who have worked there for more than 40 years. It’s safe to say that attrition across the company is low, and that’s something Rico is proud of. “The only place it’s high is on the loading docks, among the people who load and unload the trucks,” he says. “If we can retain them for two years, they get promoted to other positions, work their way through the company, and become ‘lifers.’”
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