Pioneer Hi-Bred International,
Inc., Des Moines
Tom Urban was born and raised in Des Moines, the son of Nelson Urban, Pioneer’s first employee. He went to Harvard University, earning a BA in Political Theory in 1956 and an MBA in 1960. During those years he took time to see the world as well. In 1955 he spent the summer in El Salvador. He also worked for Aluminum Ltd in Canada before returning to graduate school. He came out of graduate school not liking business much but he saw Pioneer differently; he though it presented an opportunity to make a difference in the world.
Urban’s first job at Pioneer was vaccinating chickens in Minnesota for $300 a month. He joked that he was the lowest paid graduate in his business class. Next, he worked for Pioneer in Belgium. He left the company for a couple of years in the early 70s and set up his own consulting company. After he returned to Pioneer, he moved up through the ranks learning not to push to quickly for change, that your approach was as important as your ideas. Urban became president in 1979, CEO in 1981, and chairman in 1984. Under his leadership Pioneer became a global corporation, with sales of more than 1 billion for the first time. He stepped down in 1995, several months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Urban became a lecturer at Harvard and pursued other interests as his health improved.
Urban not only led Pioneer, he led Des Moines. He was elected mayor in 1968, Des Moines youngest mayor and the first mayor under the ward system. It was a tumultuous time for many cities with tense race relationships and the war in Vietnam, but Urban provided strong, calming leadership. In 1980 he was the leader in the Golden Circle concept for economic development in central Iowa.