Ric Alvarez has always found time to reflect in the air.
Whenever he flies, Alvarez leans back in his seat, puts his headphones in, and thinks. For Richelieu Foods Inc.’s CEO and president, these hours provide a quiet space to ask himself questions, mull over unresolved discussions, and plan for unforeseen difficulties. His people-centric approach to leadership requires a constant focus on inter- and intra-departmental relationships, so these rare moments of solitary meditation have become sacred over the years.
When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Alvarez’s flights were cancelled at the same time that his business demanded new ways of thinking. But Alvarez found new ways to reflect and ideate. (Additional exercise helped.) Grounded in his certainty that company means community, Alvarez has guided both his business and his people through the turbulence of the pandemic.
Alvarez was born in Santiago, Chile, and attended high school in Puerto Rico. From there, he traveled to the United States to complete a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, a master’s and PhD in food sciences and human nutrition, and later an MBA. “I learned how to think differently, more analytically,” Alvarez says of his studies. “It gave me a scientific perspective to use in business.”
His professional career began with a technical role heading Quality Assurance for Pizza Hut, which was under the PepsiCo umbrella. Before long, Alvarez’s multi-lingual abilities opened up opportunities supporting the company’s world trade group, and eventually, he stepped into a position as overseer of all technical functions for Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC outside the United States.
To Alvarez, this was the perfect position. “I like the relationships that are developed in international business,” he says. “I had people based all over the world.”
When Alvarez left PepsiCo for Chiquita Brand International, he changed his focus from technical work to managerial efforts. He refined his leadership skills at Chiquita, working with new acquisitions and collaborating one-on-one with new owners, both domestic and international. From there, he went on to lead three private equity companies, three family-owned companies, and large divisions of publicly traded companies like Richelieu Foods, a food manufacturing company based in Massachusetts and owned by Freiberger in Germany.
At his current level, Alvarez blends internal and external responsibilities like never before. “It’s different thinking,” he explains. “You look at adjacencies, you project what’s coming around the corner that would impact the business and the team—in a way, one of my biggest responsibilities as a CEO is making people’s lives better.”
For Alvarez, forging the relationships that are key to his success as CEO is second nature. Whether he’s offering guidance on a colleague’s board of directors or listening to an employee on the manufacturing floor, he is determined to help build community.
“A company is more than shareholders or owners; it is a community of team members and stakeholders,” Alvarez emphasizes. “We’re only going to be as good as our team.”
“We excel because of great people—that’s the reality.”
Driven by this team-first approach, Alvarez ensures his people are taken care of and understood on a human level. Since more than 35 percent of his labor force is Hispanic, Alvarez switches between English and Spanish during town halls and large presentations. The company provides a multitude of enriching courses, including English courses for native Spanish speakers and vice versa.
“We reach out at a much more personal level when we do it in someone’s language,” Alvarez says. “By using their language, we get closer to that team member and learn about them as a human being. That helps us as leaders to train them, develop them, or just get to know them.”
Alvarez believes that empowering individuals from the ground up and developing teams from within drives company growth and the achievement of results. And, in the face of challenge, a well-connected team has greater odds of navigating through a storm unscathed.
So, when COVID-19 uprooted businesses across the country, Richelieu Foods did not shut down. The company adapted, innovated, asked questions, and kept everyone informed. Barriers were installed on the manufacturing floor, additional PPE was distributed, separation measures were put in place in breakrooms, and temperature checks were made mandatory upon arrival to all of the company’s five manufacturing facilities. As CEO, Alvarez was fiercely concentrated on his team members’ well-being.
“We wanted to make sure that when our team members came to work, these four walls were a safe environment for them,” he says.
Still, the CEO is always on the lookout for new ways to improve conditions for his workforce. As a sitting board member, Alvarez is part of discussions about innovative leadership practices: he often returns to his office with new ideas for his senior management teams.
“We excel because of great people—that’s the reality,” he says simply.
Though it’s hard to say how the future will unfold, Alvarez has no plans for retirement. His own father, he points out, still works part-time at ninety-six years old. “My goal is to impart some knowledge to the next generation of leaders,” he says, “to help them succeed and become better individuals.”