Handshakes and smiles, saved-for-the-occasion anecdotes and ample libations opened the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce annual banquet — a three-hour celebration of the business community and the men and women who make Hays run.
Making business run is something the featured speaker knows all about. Mayo Schmidt is a farmer to the Nth degree — companies he has helmed feed the world.
Schmidt, 56, turned the world of commodities on its ear since 2000, engineering a hostile takeover of a much-larger rival in the ingredients industry and taking a floundering company from ruin to riches — an American businessman in Canada forcing his will upon the corporate world.
Scratch that, a Hays businessman.
Schmidt is an alum of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, where his father, Marion, was the longtime football coach. Marion and his wife, Donna, are the proprietors of Blue Sky Miniature Horses outside Hays.
Mayo Schmidt walked the crowd through the highs and lows of his journey: watching his massive ships of grain arrive in India only to be hauled away on the backs of the poor; days of despair as financial deals appeared to be hopeless; convincing investors his plan was worth the risk of massive amounts of capital; a machine gun tap on the window on a dark country road as Pakistanis searched for bombers; consoling a mother who had lost a son to an industrial accident; signing the pink slips of more than 2,000 workers as he reorganized a failing company; leading that company back from the brink.
Two words repeatedly rang out from Schmidt’s address to the Hays business community — ethics and integrity.
Judging from his own tales, and accounts in the Canadian media, one should not confuse either of those words with benevolence.
“He earned a reputation as a hard-ass along the way,” Canadian Business wrote in a 2009 article naming Schmidt the nation’s top CEO.
These are tall words. Few can claim never to have fallen short of their meaning.
During Schmidt’s address, my thoughts, as they often do when faced with enormity, went to my children. In a world too often filled with doom and gloom, every parent in the Memorial Union ballroom had a reason to be optimistic.
Mayo Schmidt, progeny of the northwest Kansas classroom and family farm, ran a multibillion-dollar company. He traveled the world, making decisions that impacted not only people, but entire socioeconomic systems. He sat across from world business and political leaders as a peer. He left Victory Gate and become a titan.
And he used those lessons learned in Hays as the guiding principles behind every decision.
Mayo Schmidt was not satisfied with being good. He sought great. And he both challenged the Hays business community to strike out on the same climb and offered a sense of optimism that peak was attainable.
Ethics. Integrity. The words were still ringing in my ears as I kissed my 6-year-old daughter’s forehead when her head hit her pillow last night, still ringing when I tussled the 9-year-old boy’s hair and told him “Bed. Now. Love you.”
The Hays area created Mayo Schmidt and countless others who refused to stop at good in the pursuit of great.
She can be great. He can be great.
And that opportunity is good enough.
Ron Fields is news and information director at Eagle Communications.