by Todd Cohen
photographs by Robert Willett
In 1970, 35-year-old Ron Doggett was dealt a tough blow. He was the controller for Philadelphia-based Slim Jim, and over his objections, Slim Jim’s CEO had decided to value warehouse inventory as revenue. When Doggett raised his concerns to then-parent company General Mills, he says he was reprimanded for allowing the CEO to make that decision and then passed over for multiple promotions because he was “not management material.” Instead of firing him, he says, General Mills offered him a lower-paying job in Raleigh as assistant controller for subsidiary Goodmark Foods. Doggett accepted the offer.
“I was determined to succeed with this company,” says Doggett, now 80. “I thought a lot of General Mills. I was really fond of them and respected them. They did a lot for me. I learned a lot from them and was anxious to succeed with the company.”
The move to Raleigh paid off: In 1982, as its controller, Doggett led a $31.5 million leveraged buyout of Goodmark. In 1998, as its president, CEO, and chairman, he sold the company to ConAgra Foods for $240 million.
He reflects on his career path and more in Doggett Determination, the just-published memoir of his life. Despite growing up on a dairy farm in rural Austin, Minn., Doggett knew from an early age that he did not want to be a farmer. “I wanted to be someone who had an education and who didn’t have to struggle in life,” he says. So he joined the Army as a way to pay for college. After 21 months of military service, he enrolled in a junior college and then transferred to Minnesota State University, where he majored in business.
Doggett’s success has never been his alone. Throughout his professional life, he has remained dedicated to causes he cares about, including the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, Catholic Parish Outreach, WakeMed, and Hospice of Wake County (now Transitions LifeCare). At Goodmark Foods, he personally gave $1,000 a year for 10 years, matched with $1,000 from the company, to support college tuition for employees’ children. Last fall, he received the A.E. Finley Distinguished Service Award from the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.
Doggett has Parkinson’s Disease. His wife of more than five decades, Jeanette, has Alzheimer’s Disease and lives at an assisted-living facility in Raleigh. Their four children and 11 grandchildren all also live in Raleigh.
You and your wife both have serious illnesses. How do you cope? What keeps you going?
My wife now gets day-long care. She still knows me but is not capable of eating by herself, dressing herself, or speaking. She’s slowly disappearing. It is difficult. I am a survivor. I believe God has a plan for me and I just need to act like a good Christian and keep my interests and my efforts in helping others who are worse off. I like to see others make it. I’ve often said that in America, if you’re willing to work hard enough and you try your best, you’re going to succeed. Nothing’s impossible in this country if you’re willing to make the sacrifices and devote the time to it.
Your parents, Emil Day Doggett and Inez Baldus, were dairy farmers during the Great Depression. What did you learn from them?
How to be fair and honest and charitable. I learned that life is a series of experiences, and it’s hard work, and that parenting is hard work. I also learned that if you want to accomplish something and you try hard enough, you can succeed. You can make it. We made it through some pretty tough times.
What is your earliest memory of philanthropy?
In church, we put pennies in envelopes as little kids for the poor. I remember my mother saying we had to share what we had with others who had less.
You served on the major gifts committee for a $6 million capital campaign at Hospice of Wake County, chaired a capital campaign for WakeMed that raised $20 million under your leadership, and was eventually a $50 campaign, and you support a range of other charities. What prompts you to get involved?
I feel good about helping others who need help, and have found a way to get joy out of money I’ve made in life by seeing someone else enjoying life and making a go of it.
Who are your heroes?
Henry Ford and Winston Churchill. They were great leaders. They were determined to achieve goals they set for their country and for themselves. They were willing to make the sacrifices to succeed in life.
Who do you admire in Raleigh?
Temple Sloan (founder of General Parts International, the Raleigh-based parent of Carquest Auto Parts, which was sold to Advance Auto Parts in 2013 for $2 billion). He’s a very successful businessman and a good contributor to our society. He believes in giving back.
What motivates you each day to do something to give back?
It’s become part of my DNA. It’s so much fun. It’s a great feeling to know you help someone. When we lived on the farm, I was maybe 6 years old, and a neighbor about a mile from us had five children. The father was an alcoholic. They had no money. My mother said, ‘We’re going to visit and take them some food and clothing,’ including dresses for their girls my mother made from chicken feed sacks. I can still remember tears in the eyes of those people. We gave the simple things we had.
What inspires you?
It inspires me to get up every morning and know that I’ve got a challenge in life. I’m inspired by the activities of our community, by the growth of businesses here, by activities of the universities, and by leaders of businesses that get involved. By their example, they inspire me to get out and do good things for the community.
What does philanthropy mean to you?
Developing answers to needs of people in the community.
What do you do for fun?
I work in the garden. I have a place at the beach, at Emerald Isle. I have 11 grandchildren I love and I get to spend time with them.
What are you reading?
Several books. Joy at Work, by Dennis Bakke. It’s about how to approach a job and how to have fun on the job. A book about Ben Franklin. And I’m reading my own book, Doggett Determination. I like to pick it up and refresh myself. I thought my life would be of interest to my kids based on mistakes I made, on commitments I made, and success I had. Business is an important part of my life. I was going from farm boy to a $200 million business, and having a lot of fun and learning a lot as I went. And it was fun to recap that.
What is something people don’t know about you?
I’m a good gardener. I refinish antique furniture. I rode a bull at a rodeo sponsored by Slim Jim. I was a Golden Gloves boxer in Austin, Minn., and in the Army, but I resigned before sustaining a serious injury. I still have scars. It’s the worst sport. Your goal is to injure and knock out your opponents.
What is your philosophy of life?
With the right attitude, a willingness to make sacrifices, and true passion, you can achieve almost anything in life.