It's not a retirement, Dick Bell hastened to point out, after associates and friends said all manner of nice things about his 27 years of leadership at Riceland Foods.
“I just am starting a different agenda,” he said at a reception in his honor at the Stuttgart, Ark., 9,000-member cooperative that he and his team turned into an international powerhouse in the processing and marketing of rice.
The company posted a record $951.1 million in sales for the fiscal year ending July 31, and also set records for earnings and payments to its farmer members.
Although he officially stepped down as president and chief executive officer at the end of July, Bell will continue in an advisory capacity on strategic issues, particularly those related to farm legislation, international trade, and agriculture-related research.
“Dick already had an outstanding record in government, and he had many job offers to choose from,” said Tommy Hillman, who served as chairman of the Riceland board from 1993-2001. “It is our good fortune that he agreed to come to Riceland.”
Before joining Riceland, Bell served as assistant secretary of agriculture for international affairs and commodity programs, as president of USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation, and as chairman of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.
Earlier in his career, he was a foreign service officer at American embassies in Ottawa, Canada; Brussels, Belgium; and Dublin, Ireland.
“His efforts on behalf of Riceland and agriculture at both the state and national levels have been of great benefit to all,” Hillman said. “He is respected in state legislatures, in Congress, and in corporate boardrooms across this country for his dedication in striving for what's best for agriculture.”
Besides all that, he said, Bell “is a great person to work with — a true gentleman. I never, in 27 years, saw him lose his temper or get angry. Every CEO is known for something, a trademark. Dick's trademark is character and integrity.”
The consummate workaholic, Hillman said, Bell is “a true technician, devoted to facts and figures. When he's preparing for a presentation, his office and conference room are filled with knee-high stacks of papers and information, all of which he digests into the most effective, understandable analysis of the issue.”
Hillman also commended Bell for his “tireless work on behalf of education, research, civic, and charitable” efforts. “I doubt we'd have had the Phillips Community College branch here in Stuttgart had it not been for his pushing it so strongly.”
R.E. “Romey” Short Jr., who served as Riceland's chairman 1978-85 and was part of the team that recruited Bell, said, “Dick has been a driving force in making Riceland the leader in the industry and in helping Arkansas to become the number one rice-producing state.
“He has always put the interest of Riceland's members foremost. Ours is a unique organization, and we're honored to have had a person of his caliber at the helm.”
Tommy Hoskyn, elected to the Riceland board in 1981 and elevated to chairman in 2001, said Bell “from the very first day had a vision of what he wanted Riceland to be, and he never lost sight of that goal.
“His years of government service in Washington and internationally gave him a broad base of knowledge and experience for dealing with legislative issues. Dick is one of the best-informed persons on farm policy in the nation, and he has been generous over the years in guiding many of us to involved in the political process.”
Arkansas State Senator Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, presented a citation, “the highest honor our Senate can bestow,” praising Bell for his service to agriculture in Arkansas and the nation. He also presented citations on behalf of the secretary of state and governor.
In his brief remarks before urging everyone to “have some cake and punch,” Bell, who'd told the directors he didn't want any fuss over his departure, laughed that “it's almost worth it to see Ford Baldwin in suit and tie.” (Baldwin, retired Arkansas Extension weed scientist, is a consultant for Riceland.)
“When I walked through these doors 27 years ago, I frankly didn't expect I'd be staying,” Bell said. “I figured I'd be going back into government service. But this has proved to be the best of both worlds — a great agribusiness organization and continued involvement in policy and politics.”
The organization has achieved its outstanding success, Bell said, “because of talented, capable leadership and a team of very dedicated employees. I'm proud to be associated with them.”
Bell said it is also a point of personal pride that “in 27 years, I never missed a single board meeting — 168 of them — and I attended more than 300 of our regional dryer board meetings.”
In addition to spending more time with his family and grandchildren, Bell will continue involvement in service on boards of Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Foundation Fund, the Stuttgart Regional Medical Center, Easter Seals Arkansas, the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie, and the Grand Prairie Early Childhood Development Council.