About Magazine’s Person of the Year

Whether mounted on a quarter horse, playing tennis, speaking to a crowd of fresh-faced entrepreneurial hopefuls, sponsoring civic events, or strategizing new lines of chips, Bob Shearer is a perfectionist.

Bob Shearer, CEO of Shearer’s Foods, named About magazine’s first ‘Person of the Year’

Whether mounted on a quarter horse, playing tennis, speaking to a crowd of fresh-faced entrepreneurial hopefuls, sponsoring civic events, or strategizing new lines of chips, Bob Shearer is a perfectionist.

“I guess you’d say a little anal,” he said sheepishly, shaking his head.

His younger brother, Tom, agreed.

“Neat freak. … When we were kids, Bob made my bed for me,” he said.

Their dad’s description is more diplomatic.

“Bob was always … particular,” explained Jack Shearer.

Bob Shearer, chairman of the board and chief executive of Shearer’s Foods, is a type-A personality to the max. The 59-year-old Central Catholic High graduate, with patches of white hair outlining his balding head, admits to liking control. He aligns Aquafina water bottle labels in the same direction on the top shelf of his refrigerator. He arranges shirts in order — from light to dark colors — in the closet of his home overlooking the 13th fairway at Glenmoor Country Club in Jackson Township.

“He wants to be the best at everything,” said his wife of 18 years, Melissa Shearer.

Maybe it’s that attention to detail that transformed the Brewster-based potato chip-maker from a mom-and-pop operation into a nationwide snack manufacturer with Bob Shearer at the helm. Could be why the company expanded in an economy when others constricted and is building its environmentally friendly Millennium Plant in Massillon. And perhaps it’s that kind of attitude that regularly earns Shearer’s “great place to work” awards, as it nurtures future executives through an in-house Emerging Leaders program.

“He does things around here that you never hear about,” said Scott Heldreth, chief operating officer of the 1,467-employee company. “He’s helped employees; he’s helped their families in bad times.”

For all that and more, Shearer was named About magazine’s first Person of the Year. Selected by About staff through nominations from the magazine’s advisory board, community members and others, this award will become an annual honor.

Outside of the office Growing up, Bob Shearer wanted to be a funeral director. His parents knew people in the business. And he always was impressed with how neat funeral home buildings appeared. But once the chips business took hold in the late 1970s, he knew he was in it for life. Even if he balances it with a few side interests.

He claims he’s not a good golfer, but boasts a hole-in-one on his résumé, to go along with a birdie at No. 7 at Pebble Beach. A couple of years ago, he decided to do something about his ongoing weight problem: He promptly lost 100 pounds in a year. Last summer, he won an amateur tennis tournament in Akron. He and his wife own a handful of quarter horses, and he’s ridden them in competitions. In the last several years, he’s delivered seminars and speeches at colleges, touting the virtues of entrepreneurism and preaching “six c’s”: credibility, capabilities, communication, compliments, community and conservation. In May, Lake Erie College presented him with an honorary doctorate.

All pretty heady stuff.

“I always thought that if you stopped growing and moving forward, that eventually you’d go backward,” Shearer explained.

Despite quintupling company sales in the last five years, Shearer has tried to do it the right way. From the Millennium plant — which, for example, is heated almost entirely by recovered production-equipment waste heat — to a kettle full of company awards that include The Weatherhead 100, NEO Success, Cascade Capital Business Growth, and The Entrepeneurs EDGE honor.

A company Caring and Sharing Committee has raised more than $100,000 since 2003 to help employees and local residents in need. Shearer’s employs clients from the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities; holds an annual outing at Glenmoor to benefit Pegasus Farm, a local horse-based healing center; and recently added an employee wellness program, complete with an on-site clinic.

Though Bob and Melissa Shearer now technically are residents of Bonita Springs, Fla., they spend plenty of time at their Glenmoor home and at the Brewster corporate headquarters. Ohio feels like home. It’s where the company was born. It sprouted from a family-owned grocery store at Ninth Street and Dartmouth Avenue SW in Canton.

Brothers Bob and Tom and their parents bought a chip distributorship, then evolved into a chip-maker on Harrisburg Road NE, ultimately progressing to the purchase of its 10-acre site in Brewster in 1982, and subsequent expansions.

Heart in Stark County

“He’s a straight-to-the-point, no-nonsense person,” said Massillon Mayor Francis Cicchinelli, whose city is the beneficiary of the Millennium project, now in its second construction phase.

The mayor said Shearer’s employs 300 people in Massillon at two sites, and will add nearly 100 more next year. The company considered other locations.

“The state of Texas was wooing them,” Cicchinelli said. “(The Shearers) are Stark County people, so I think we had an advantage. But business is business and you don’t make decisions based on heart.”

Shearer’s already owned a plant in Lubbock, Texas. Millennium could have been a good fit there, as well. Bob Shearer also looked at Arizona.

“But this is where we grew up; we love the workforce in Stark County,” he said.

Parents Jack and Rosemary Shearer retired from the company years ago. Rosemary died in 2008; Jack lives in a condo in the Canton area. Today, sons Bob and Tom own equal shares of the company. Several employees also own smaller pieces. Majority ownership, though, was sold to private investors a half-dozen years ago.

“I give all the credit to the boys,” Jack Shearer said.

From its humble beginnings, Shearer’s grew exponentially under their leadership. This year, the company completed its purchase of Snack Alliance, a private label snack-maker. Shearer’s operates plants in Brewster, Lubbock, Canonsburg, Pa., Massillon, Hermiston, Ore., and Bristol, Va., and well as several distributorships.

“He’s tried very hard to keep that family feel around here,” said Fritz Kohmann, the company’s chief financial officer.

Shearer has few regrets.

Except for that $200,000 he spent on an automated packing system in the early 1990s. The 21st century technology wasn’t quite ready for practical use then and wound up on the scrap heap.

“Every failure is a learning experience,” he said.

The variation in taste and texture of a simple chip, from one maker to the next, still gives him pause: “I’ve always been amazed that you can take the same potato, the same oil, the same equipment, and get a different product,” he said.