THE FOUR QUARTERS OF LIFE
Joe Slawek ’67 leveraged his working-class roots and Saint Patrick education to capture success in the flavor business. Now in his life’s fourth and final quarter, he’s giving back to the next generation, including his alma mater.
With an earnest blend of faith and focus, Joe Slawek ’67 believes ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
And Slawek should know.
The oldest of eight children from Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood, Slawek parlayed Bungalow Belt grit, his Saint Patrick High School education, and a summer job into a spirited career in the flavoring industry that included the launch of his own family-run business, FONA International. Over more than three decades, Slawek and his team built FONA into a flavoring powerhouse in the food, beverage, and nutritional markets before selling the family business to McCormick & Company in 2020 for $710 million.
“It all comes from being that child from Warwick Avenue who wasn’t afraid to work, to learn, and to treat others well,” Slawek says.
Now, Slawek, who likes to think of his life in four quarters, is driven to impact and inspire future generations, including Shamrocks.
The First Quarter: Education
The son of an insurance salesman and a stay-at-home mother who later worked as a restaurant hostess, Slawek first attended Quigley Seminary after graduating from St. Bartholomew School. After a year at Quigley, though, Slawek decided priesthood wasn’t for him and transferred to Saint Patrick.
At Belmont and Austin, Slawek excelled in the classroom under teachers like Mr. Richard Muller ’59, thrived in track and field under the disciplined guidance of Mr. Gerald Murphy, and created lifelong friendships with 1967 classmates such as Gary Schira, Al Ferrari, and Jim Miceli.
“With Joe, you saw right away a guy who was diligent and someone who took to the Christian values and Lasallian tradition of Saint Pat’s,” says Schira, who enjoyed a decorated career in law enforcement that included serving as police chief in Bloomingdale and Batavia, Illinois. “Joe’s humility, generosity, and drive were all apparent, even way back then.”
Prior to his senior year at Saint Patrick, Slawek also landed a summer job at Food Materials Corp., a flavor company located on Irving Park Road. That seemingly mundane opportunity altered the trajectory of his life.
At a factory covered in the scent of butterscotch, Slawek swept the floors, extracted vanilla, and performed other entry-level tasks. Frequently, though, manufacturing foremen borrowed Slawek’s mathematical aptitude and directed him to blend ingredients, a process that involved calculating formulas and navigating conversions between distinct units of measurements. “Let Joey do it,” became a common refrain on the production floor.
“They liked me there and I think it had a lot to do with Saint Pat’s,” Slawek says. “They knew I was well educated, knew math, and was hard working.”
The Second Quarter: Get to know your industry
Into his college years at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Slawek continued working at Food Materials on the second shift, on weekends, and on school breaks, increasingly touching other areas of company operations. When he graduated from UIC in 1972 with a marketing degree, Food Materials leadership asked Slawek to apply for a full-time position.
“I rushed up the Edens Expressway to Old Orchard Mall to buy a sport coat for the interview,” Slawek recalls.
Though Slawek began in sales, an area that initially prompted anxiety, he quickly discovered his experience on Food Materials’ frontlines provided an edge with clients.
“Because I knew how the company ran, how the lab operated, and how to make flavors, I could talk to the big food companies who purchased industrial flavors with depth and confidence,” Slawek says.
By his late 20s, Slawek emerged as the company’s number two salesman and earned a spot on the firm’s executive team running sales and marketing efforts. By his mid 30s, he was the firm’s top salesperson and accounted for nearly half of the company’s annual revenue.
“I was doing well in business and loving life,” Slawek says.
In 1985, however, Slawek’s mentor, Food Materials chairman Art Schramm, passed away suddenly at age 70 and a void opened atop Food Materials. As new leadership began lowering the company’s technical head count and making other short-term decisions, Slawek became uneasy.
“I was intuitive enough to wonder about the company’s direction,” Slawek says of Food Materials, which was predictably sold in 1990 to a firm from New Jersey.
The Third Quarter: Build something great
In 1987, at the age of 37, Slawek left Food Materials after two decades to launch FONA with his wife, Mary, a fellow Northwest Side native.
“I was fortunate to learn my industry in my early years and then be able to branch out with new ideas while I was still relatively young,” Slawek says.
While the Slaweks crafted a “high-tech, high-touch, high-trust” business to compete with larger players, speed was FONA’s “secret sauce.” They positioned company resources to get safe, quality product in front of clients quickly, which included advanced researching and testing so FONA could be first at the table.
“If that meant creating something overnight, so be it,” says Slawek, whose company averaged almost 15 percent annual growth over its lifespan.
The fast-mover model combined with first-rate employees and a world-class, 80,000-square foot facility in west suburban Geneva spurred FONA’s climb into one of the globe’s top 10 flavor companies. FONA’s behind-the-scenes work, in fact, powered more than 3,000 brands and touched a vast array of product categories, from chewing gum, confections, and cereals to protein shakes, beverages, and cough syrups.
“Every Shamrock has tasted our work,” jokes Slawek, who was inducted into the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame in 1999 and named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Manufacturing in the Midwest in 2011.
Equally vital to FONA’s rise, however, was the Slaweks’ unrelenting focus on thoughtful, values-based leadership and an earnest commitment to their staff. They issued an annual Thanksgiving bonus, provided employees access to chaplains, and made headlines in November 2020 when they redirected a $7.1 million surplus to 220 employees, awarding staff $2,500 for every year of service at FONA.
The National Association for Business Resources routinely listed FONA as one of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For, while Fortune recognized FONA as the nation’s top small or mid-sized workplace in manufacturing and production in October 2020.
“The owner is very family-oriented and wants to constantly express how important we are to him, to the company, and to our own families,” one employee told Fortune.
In his 2013 book, Ingredients for Success: 10 Best Practices for Business and Life, Slawek shared his life’s guiding principles, which included urging others to aim for excellence, redistributing unused talents and resources, and expressing gratitude to God. Slawek didn’t simply preach those ideals, though. He lived them.
“He modeled radical generosity and genuine care for all of us. And he always believes in the best in people,” says Kirk Slawek, the second of Joe and Mary Slawek’s three children.
The Fourth Quarter: Generative
As Slawek’s 70th birthday approached in December 2020, however, a man who had spent more than 50 years in the flavor business examined his life’s next steps. Moving into the fourth and final quarter of his life, Slawek prioritized “being generative” – that is, sowing seeds for the future generations.
The late 2020 sale of FONA to McCormick was designed to foster FONA’s international growth, something best accomplished under the wings of an established global conglomerate. That move also enabled Slawek to devote his time to investing in the next generation – his own family, which now includes six grandchildren with Mary, and his staff as well as industrious souls he might never meet.
To that end, the Slawek Family recently made a $500,000 donation to Saint Patrick specifically earmarked for financial aid. Slawek, who now lives outside Nashville, says the gift honors his parents’ commitment to Catholic education and the Lasallian mission to educate students from working-class backgrounds. It’s a move consistent with Slawek’s “common man” worldview and his devout spirituality.
“One thing that makes the world better is people talking about their faith in Jesus and that’s something that happens at Saint Pat’s,” Slawek says. “We all intuitively know that it is about God’s grace.”
Expressing love and admiration for his Class of 1967 brothers and the role Saint Patrick played in his own development, Slawek hopes his family’s gift creates opportunity for a new generation of Shamrocks.
“I hope our gift pushes students to fulfill their potential and do wonderful things in this world for themselves and, more importantly, for others,” he says.
Saint Patrick High School looks forward to welcoming Joe and Mary Slawek back to campus two weeks from today on May 3, 2023.
ABOUT SAINT PATRICK HIGH SCHOOL
Now in its 162nd year, Saint Patrick is the oldest all-male Catholic high school in Chicago. Its mission is to provide an educational experience of the highest quality which enables young men to develop their maximum potential as lifelong learners and assets to society and the Church. Saint Patrick welcomes students of other religious beliefs, varying academic abilities, and diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Students reside in the city of Chicago and nearby suburbs and come from more than 128 different elementary schools
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