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Monday, July 11, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Oberto U' Lessons, Finance Degree Lead To Company Presidency

A CONVERSATION WITH LAURA OBERTO

Name: Laura Oberto.

Age: 37.

Position: President of Oberto Sausage Co., Kent and Albany, Ore.

Quote: "All my friends thought I was crazy because women weren't supposed to be presidents of meat-packing companies."

Growing up in the business: Oberto, the granddaughter of company founder, Constantino Oberto, remembers helping her father, Art, mix spices into the sausage. Until she was 7, she lived in a house next to the factory and used to run over to the factory to pick up the mail for her mother, who kept the company books.

Too small to open the steel factory door, Oberto remembers standing at the door and blowing on her mother's majorette whistle to let workers know she was there. During her teens, she worked in the plant two nights a week and during the summer.

On becoming president: "That's what I always wanted to be," she says.

On-the-job training: From the time she was 17, Oberto shared a cramped office with her father, handling cost accounting and tabulating time cards while sitting at a desk made from two file cabinets with an old door laid across the top. Through the years, her father began handing off other bits of his job to her, and by the time she was 20, she realized he wanted her to eventually lead the company.

To do that, Oberto, who had put off college to work for the company, realized she needed more training.

"Oberto University was nice," she jokes, "but it would only take me so far." She enrolled at Seattle University and earned a bachelor's degree in finance in three years.

Working her way up: After earning her degree, she realized she didn't have the experience or inclination to take over the company immediately.

"I wasn't ready," says Oberto. "I was 24, had met a nice guy and I wanted to start a family."

She did, while working as head of Oberto's retail-sales division. In 1990, she became co-chairman of the company with her father, and, in 1991, she took over as president.

The family's role: Only two of the four Oberto siblings work for the company. Her younger brother, Steve, is an industrial engineer who's in charge of company equipment. Oberto's husband, Mike McElhoe, manages the Pride of Oberto division, overseeing factory outlet stores, concession sales and sales to fund-raising organizations. Their children, Sarah, now 12, and David, 10, and their friends are her unofficial taste-testers.

Company growth: In February, Oberto nearly doubled sales when it acquired two meat-snack companies from corporate giant Curtice Burns - Oregon-based Lowery's and Smokecraft. The acquisition boosted employment from 300 to just under 500, giving Oberto other lines including a chewier, chopped-and-formed beef jerky that complements its natural, dried jerky.

"We used to always laugh at this stuff because the Seattle market is natural jerky," says Oberto, holding aloft a slab of Lowery's jerky. Then they saw the sales, and took another look.

Even though the two lines were not profitable for Curtice Burns, they are for Oberto. With the purchase, Oberto's share of the U.S. meat snack market rocketed from 17 percent to 55.5 percent.

Food for '90s: Oberto is promoting jerky as a healthy snack to hikers and others watching their fat intake. The natural jerky is about 97 percent fat free, though the chopped-and-formed jerky has a higher fat content.

In search of the health-oriented market, Oberto also is removing monosodium glutamate from most of its products. While eliminating MSG had been mentioned from time to time, the issue hit home after Oberto's daughter asked her mother if it was safe to eat.

The company isn't taking the step "because we believe it's bad for you," Oberto hastens to say.

But "if your customer believes it (is), as far as I'm concerned . . . you shouldn't have it in there."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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