Relishing Reinvention with Shelly Stayer

NI caught up with the multi-talented businesswoman and philanthropist about her latest endeavors and rolling with life's reboots

Shelly StayerShelly Stayer, chairperson of the board of the Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage Company, looks at reinvention through many lenses. First, there are her personal and professional journeys, inspiring stories of when she learned that she loved the business world after many years of active involvement with her children. Beyond that, though, Stayer’s interest in family safety motivated her to be the lead benefactor in building the Shelly Stayer Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence in Immokalee, which officially opened in May 2020. The Shelter includes 60 beds for victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, and has recently seen an uptick in calls.

NI caught up with Stayer, who lives in Naples with her husband, Ralph, to discuss her thoughts on life’s reboots.

NI: What has been the most challenging reinvention you’ve gone through?

Stayer: I’ve gone from holding a degree in education to raising children to now being chairperson of a billion-dollar-plus company. I absolutely love working. Luckily, it’s not unusual to have females in the top positions at Johnsonville. My in-laws, Alice Stayer and her husband, Ralph, started the company in Wisconsin in the 1940s. She was the brains and he was the brawn of the operation. A generation later, my sister-in-law, Launa Stayer, headed up sales and took the brand outside the state of Wisconsin. So, I’m the third batter-up. I’m a firm believer that every person can start a new career later in life, whatever it might be, especially when children have flown the nest. You just have to think about what you want to do.

How does the Shelly Stayer Shelter help women and children move forward after abuse?

The Shelter helps people with everything they need to succeed in life including nutritional counseling, child welfare, cooking healthy meals, opening bank accounts, automobile care, and so much more. Once they step foot into the shelter, it is a whole process. We take care of helping them redirect themselves so that they don’t go back to the life that they knew. Sometimes it takes two or three years. It’s very rewarding for the staff, and all of us, to see what happens on graduation day. They leave with their children and their pets and a chance at a new life. One of the reasons we are so successful in the world of human trafficking is because of the partnership we have with the police and sheriff’s department. They’re the first ones on the scene. Law enforcement officers and the judicial system have made us very skilled at helping these people.

On the theme of reinvention, what are some broader community projects you’d like to get involved in?

I’d like to see more athletic groups for people my age. I wish there were cornhole, pickleball, volleyball leagues, and anything else people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s might be interested in. I’d also like to start my own learning center where anybody, any age, can design, sew, knit, crochet, needlepoint, and create things for needy families. People could learn these lost skills. There are folks right here who can teach us. We’re all looking for purposeful interaction that helps others.

What’s new with you and Ralph? You’ve swapped roles in terms of leadership at Johnsonville Sausage. How is he adjusting to his revamped life?

Ralph wakes up every day and says, “My off is on.” He’s read 1,000 books in three years. He loves retirement. I’m very grateful to be able to access his knowledge as he’s one of America’s original butchers, and the last year has been challenging with the pandemic. Right now, we’re enjoying five new grandchildren in the space of two years. All of our grandchildren are an incredible blessing, the best that life offers.

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