Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 17, Number 2
Winter 1995

How sweet it is! Bill Christ Climbs Corporate Ladder

How sweet it is! Bill Christ Climbs Corporate Ladder

by Su Clauson-Wicker

The air outside Bill Christ's corner office of the Hershey corporate headquarters smells faintly of chocolate. His third-story view takes in the largest chocolate factory in the world, the H.B.ReeseTM plant, and Hershey's Chocolate WorldTM visitor center. As Hershey's senior vice president and chief financial officer, Christ (BAD '62) is responsible for the financial dealings at these facilities and all of Hershey's chocolate, confectionery, and pasta operations in the world. The omnipresent bowls of candy in the corporate offices seem to reinforce the childlike fantasy that chocolate executives have access to all the candy in the world. "I love chocolate," Christ says, as he unwraps a small bar of "the product"--a Hershey insiders' term for their chocolate. "I eat these more than I should." Christ, an avid equestrian who plans in spring to retrace Napoleon's march from exile through France, appears to put his chocolate to good use as energy food. His management style is equally energetic. "I don't mind conflict," he says. "I encourage my people to speak out and not necessarily to agree with me. We aren't afraid to go against the system to get something done. At my staff meetings, people are very argumentative--all trying to sell their points." Christ's role is to draw everyone together and get them focussed in the same direction by the end of the meeting. "The object is to use only the best of each idea and get everyone focussed back on the goal. That's leadership. It's easy to lead by dictatorship, but you get better ideas when you draw from everyone," he says. With his latest promotion, Christ has corporate responsibility for all financial aspects of Hershey's business, as well as corporate development, acquisitions, the pension fund, investor relations, and compliance with ethical standards throughout the company. "Nothing in your formal education can completely prepare you for a business career," he says. "I received a fine education and a well-rounded experience at Virginia Tech. I don't think it's imperative for you to have your career completely planned when you enter college or even when you graduate. You don't really know what you want to do until you get out and do things." Christ transferred to Virginia Tech in 1959 from a small West Virginia liberal arts college because he wanted to become an engineer. After a cooperative education experience in a western Pennsylvania steel mill near his home, Christ changed his career plans to the business field. He has fond memories of Cotillions, of living off campus, and of driving outside of town for a beer. Being in the civilian minority seemed a disadvantage at first, but he came to enjoy his freedom. Upon graduation, he accepted a federal position in Harrisburg, Pa., knowing he would soon be in the military. He joined the air force to feed an old love of airplanes just as his draft notice arrived and eventually served as captain in charge of aircraft maintenance in Vietnam. ("Too color blind to be a pilot," he says.) Here he received his only international living experience. Some years later at Hershey he would travel 80 percent of the time, logging 107 trips to Brazil alone, but he never again lived abroad. Christ married his wife, Carol, whom he'd met on the Harrisburg job, while in the service. Upon his discharge, he returned to that position and worked in data processing. "My familiarity with computers was near zero when I took that job," he says. Apparently he learned a lot in two years because when a Hershey job in the field opened up ("jobs there were considered worth killing for"), he applied and found himself setting up management information systems for Hershey's accounting and finance divisions. Christ impressed his boss, Ken Wolfe, now Hershey's CEO, enough so that Wolfe made Christ assistant budget director when he took over that department. From there, Christ took responsibility for financial planning and analysis, acquisitions and mergers, and international finance. He became vice president of the chocolate operations in 1985. He soon moved up to become president of Hershey International, as Hershey expanded its export and manufacturing operations to Europe, Brazil, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and other parts of the world. "My only regret about my education is that I didn't take a lot more liberal arts courses--courses like art appreciation, literature, philosophy. I wish I'd taken two or three times as many," Christ says. "International businessmen seem more well-rounded, more educated in the arts than their counterparts in the United States. It helps to be well-rounded in the business world. You can talk business all day, and when you get to dinner you have nothing to talk about. I have my wife to thank for changing me in that respect. She's the well-rounded one in the family." He and Carol (who has degrees in math, chemistry, computer science, and library science) raise horses and an endangered variety of sheep on the 1797 estate they recently restored. Their daughter, a physics graduate of Gettysburg College who holds a Penn State M.B.A., and their son, a Hampden-Sydney alumnus, are both married and live in southern Pennsylvania. From his vantage point, Christ has two criticisms of modern college education. "American college students are at a disadvantage in foreign languages when it comes to the real world. Their courses seem to emphasize reading and grammar over speaking," he says. "Command of a second language is an absolute necessity today. Business people are so much more appreciated if they try to speak the language. But there has to be a better way to teach it." Now that he's moved up in the company, Christ says he spends less and less time applying ideas he learned in college and more time managing people--something he doesn't think is taught effectively at the college level. "Maybe managing people can't be taught until you actually do it," he muses. "But I do think everyone should have the experience of getting feedback from peers. You can't manage everyone the same way--some need coaching; others need independence. You find that you can get the right answer but in the wrong way." Christ has taken his western Pennsylvania values of humility and hard work along with him. He attributes his success to luck and being in the right place at the right time. But he doesn't forget the hard work. "When I come home at night and lay my head on the pillow, the most important thing to me is knowing I gave the company a full day's work and what I have done has had an impact on Hershey's success," he says. Christ sits on an advisory board for Penn State's Harrisburg campus, where he received his M.B.A. in 1973. He says he's at a loss when asked by young professionals how to go about planning a career path. "Nowhere in my career did I ever plan for my next move. I was so busy doing the best I could wherever I was that I never had time to think about that. Then someone would say, 'We'd like you to take over this.' I never set career goals for myself. I won't say I wasn't ambitious, but I never preoccupied myself with the next step. "When I was president of Hershey International, I thought, 'Isn't this a surprise--a little old country boy like me is doing all right,' never dreaming I would move up to my current level."

Other Hokies in the Hershey line-up

Marcella Davidson (FS '74)

Marcella Davidson says she came to Hershey because she was in the right place at the right time. When a drought pinched the U.S. peanut supply, Davidson gained extensive experience in peanut quality in her earlier job for Planters. Hershey, it turned out, was looking for a food scientist with peanut experience. "Of course I jumped at the opportunity," says Davidson. "They wanted me to set up a quality assurance department in a brand-new plant they were building in Stuarts Draft, Va. I could set up a department the way I'd always wanted it to be. Hershey is a company where quality stands side by side with manufacturing--that's not always the case." Thirteen years and several big promotions later, Davidson is just as excited about what she is doing. "I love working for this company where everyone is involved in our success," she says. In those 13 years, Davidson has moved from Stuarts Draft to become assistant manager of Hershey's Luden's plant in Reading, Pa., to the company's H.B. Reese Candy Company in Hershey, where she was plant manager for four years. Davidson was promoted last summer to director of quality assurance over Hershey Chocolate's 16 North American plants. Her responsibilities run from assuring that every Hershey'sTM bar has the same quality of chocolate to making sure that every plant meets government environmental regulations. Her department makes sure that the newly developed NutRageousTM bar, for instance, has a recipe or "ingredient statement" clearly formulating the percentage of peanuts and a specification defining the appearance of the chocolate on the bar. Davidson is a strong advocate of Hershey's Quality Through Excellence program, which has saved the company millions by encouraging all employees to share their ideas. Three years ago, her line employees at the H.B. Reese plant developed an improved Reese's CrunchyTM peanut butter cup and tested it on the manufacturing line. The marketing department and the consumers liked it, so it became part of their product line. "I really enjoy being part of helping things like this happen," she says. Davidson, who has two teenage children, is president of the Virginia Tech Agriculture Alumni Organization.

Paul J. Smith (IEOR '75)

If Southwest Virginians are especially partial to the new NutRageousTM bars, Paul "Bo" Smith wants to know. As director of material control for Hershey Chocolate's 11 U.S. and Canadian plants, he is responsible for how much of each product is made and how they are sent through the country's logistics network to the customers. "If 1,000 cases of chocolate bar six-packs are needed on the West Coast next week, my team has to figure out where they'll come from," he says. Smith works closely with Hershey's marketing department to determine how much of the product is needed and whether customers are pleased with the product and the service. Smith's main claim to fame at Virginia Tech, he says, was serving as vice president on the campus American Institute of Industrial Engineers. The group was named the No. 1 chapter in the country while he was in office. He came to Hershey straight out of a master's program in industrial engineering at West Virginia University in 1977 and worked two years as an industrial engineer before becoming a production analyst. At Hershey, he heads a team that forecasts customers' needs, based on customer input and sales reports. As a result of his team's efforts, they've sold more products, experienced fewer customer problems, and had fewer products left over. His team won the Hershey Chocolate U.S.A.'s President's Quality Through Excellence award this year. Smith observed his 40th year by forming a rock n' roll band with several members of the marketing team. The group, the Bad Toupees, in which Smith plays keyboard, has been featured on local television.

John W. Whitehead (BAD '68)

John Whitehead, director of Hershey International's export sales group, has chocolate products in more sizes and shapes in his office than any other person who isn't running a candy shop. There are the chocolate chickens for Dutch markets, the glitzy German chocolate bar, and a new line of Hershey International chocolate bars. And that's just the chocolate--Hershey International and its subsidiaries also produce confections including licorice, as well as pasta. In fact the Hershey Pasta Group--under such labels as SkinnerTM, RonzoniTM, and others-- is the No. 1 U.S. pasta producer and is growing in other countries. Whitehead's job is to assist in developing new markets around the globe for Hershey products, managing the logistics, and keeping his eyes open for sales opportunities. So far, Hershey is exporting to every continent and to at least 50 countries. "Our high-growth areas now are in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and some Far Eastern countries," Whitehead says. "We recently have been making a special effort in Russia, where there's already a high consumption of confections." In third world countries, Whitehead says, people derive the same enjoyment from buying quality snacks, such as imported chocolates, that we might get from a more expensive activity, such as a night at the movies. Although Whitehead once averaged 80 days of international travel a year, he's now more involved in the home office. Except for a brief stint with Sears Co. during college, Whitehead has been moving up in sales divisions at Hershey all his 25-year career. His Virginia Tech activities gave opportunities to interact socially with business professionals while in school--a real advantage, Whitehead says. The South Boston, Va., native was president of the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity, a member of the American Association of Marketing, and a delegate to the Virginia State Symposium on Economic Affairs, as well as a student government representative.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 2 Winter 1995