Mark Vaupel Isn’t Letting a Pandemic Stop Transformation

Champion of change Mark Vaupel leads his IT team to redefine the capabilities of the 129-year-old Hormel Foods through Project Orion

Mark Vaupel, Hormel FoodsPhoto courtesy of Hormel Foods

There is a fifty-year connection between Mark Vaupel and Hormel Foods. The vice president of IT services at the Austin, Minnesota-headquartered company grew up on a family farm twenty-five miles outside of town. The Vaupel family raised grain, poultry, and livestock.

“I remember, as a relatively young child, loading up hogs into the back of our pickup truck and bringing them into the Hormel plant,” Vaupel recalls. “I understood at an early age that our family was connected to this business, but I didn’t expect that I would have the opportunity to become part of this Fortune 500 company years later.”

Vaupel has spent nearly twenty-five years at Hormel Foods, but it’s not a tenure one expects to hear by the tenor of Vaupel’s voice. The VP speaks rapidly and eloquently, with the passion of a new hire. And his team has just undertaken their most substantive project to date: a company-wide ERP overhaul in the middle of a pandemic.

The scale and overall success of the operation, in collaboration with partners KPMG and Oracle, is redefining the capabilities of a 129-year-old company that continues finding ways to innovate and evolve in an ever-changing marketplace.

Deploying Project Orion

“People would sometimes say, ‘We’ve been successful for so long, why would we want to change it now?’” Vaupel says. “I think the answer is that we need to continue to evolve. We need to make sure that we’re able to continue to meet the changing expectations of our customers and consumers, the people to whom we are delivering what I consider to be some of the greatest food products in the world.”

Vaupel says that “Project Orion,” while qualifying as an IT transformation to a cloud-based suite that consolidates systems under a single data model, is also so much more. “This is a transformation of business processes for a global-branded food company,” Vaupel explains. “An even bigger portion of that is change management and getting people comfortable with the new way of working within this new model.”

KPMG’s Sanjay Sehgal notes the transformation he has seen through the partnership with Vaupel. “Project Orion is reinventing the way Hormel operates their business, not only from a technology perspective but from a people and process standpoint as well,” says Sehgal, KPMG’s finance transformation partner. “This has been one of the most exciting projects of my career—Mark and the Hormel team have been amazing to work with.”

“I think many of the new capabilities we’ve introduced will carry forward to make our new normal an even better experience.”

The scope of the project—which includes enterprise resource planning, human capital management, supply chain management, and enterprise performance management—wasn’t just significant for Hormel Foods. “I think this is one of the larger implementations that KPMG and maybe even Oracle has been involved with,” Vaupel says. “We broke the project into different components in order to manage the risk of deploying these new solutions.”

Risk mitigation played a huge role. “We really had to take the time to understand the business processes and what we were looking to evolve,” Vaupel says. “We also had team members explicitly focused on change management as we engaged with KPMG, making sure that what we were thinking about executing and delivering was aligned with world-class capabilities and best-in-class change management approaches.”

Vaupel was all too familiar with ERP implementations that went live over a weekend and reigned down chaos on Monday morning.

Persisting in a Pandemic

As the HR and payroll systems went online in January 2020, things were progressing as planned. The finance and source-to-settle systems were expected to go live at the end of April. Then March came, bringing with it a worldwide pandemic. And yet, IT persisted.

“We made the decision to push our go-live to June 1,” Vaupel says. “Our leadership mantra all along has been to do this right. We’re not going to go fast just to hit a date.”

Despite a pandemic, they only lost a few steps on the overall implementation. “One of the most interesting things is that some of our peers and competitors in the market have taken ERP-type projects off the table, if not entirely, for six months or so,” he says. “We were able to apply our agility and adaptability to changing environments in ways that, frankly, still impress me.”

Finance successfully went live, and the Orion team has moved on to testing supply chain capabilities to be rolled out in August 2020.

“We need to make sure that we’re able to continue to meet the changing expectations of our customers and consumers, the people to whom we are delivering what I consider to be some of the greatest food products in the world.”

The IT team was concurrently able to transition many of the company’s team members working from an office to working remotely within a week. This involved providing remote access as well as communication and collaboration capabilities in a safe and secure manner for almost four thousand team members.

“We had already rolled out some of the Microsoft Office 365 suite to allow for improved collaboration, so the timing couldn’t have been better,” Vaupel says. “I’m so proud of the fact that the IT team had the forethought to recognize these are capabilities this company is going to need going into the future. These tools and the capabilities they provide have been instrumental in the success of our ability to continue to effectively and efficiently work in this environment.”

Those improved collaboration capabilities are an obvious passion point for Vaupel. “The lemonade we’ve been able to make from all of these lemons of the past few months is that I feel the use of technologies that we delivered probably evolved and matured three to four years in a month,” Vaupel explains. “We were forced to use it, and I’m extremely proud of how the overall Hormel Foods team has really taken advantage of these tools.”

Vaupel foresees these tools becoming the norm, regardless of the eventual pandemic outcome. “We’re never going back to the way business was done in December or January,” Vaupel says. “I think many of the new capabilities we’ve introduced will carry forward to make our new normal an even better experience.”

The ERP implementation, and the rest of Project Orion, continues its rollout at Hormel Foods, and there may not be a bigger champion of change than Vaupel. The VP still has his eyes on the future, such as continued investments in e-commerce, digital marketing, and more.

“We’re a food company, it’s in our name. We’re not a tech company,” he says. “But we will use technology to impact every facet of this company to support our business.”