Rick Ray didn’t set out on a career in manufacturing but he quickly found his way into the field and never left.

“I’m an oddity. I have a marketing degree but I’ve always worked in operations,” Rick said.

Rick has spent the past 13 years at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, where he has shared his expertise with small and midsize manufacturers in the state as a senior manufacturing specialist. He is set to retire at the end of the year.

After serving as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam and earning a degree in marketing and human resources from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rick embarked on career in manufacturing at General Foods Corp., now part of Kraft Foods Group Inc.

Rick’s first assignment was at a General Foods plant in Kankakee, Illinois, which produced dog food. He then worked for General Foods’ operations in White Plains, N.Y., and spent 14 years overall with the company before returning to Wisconsin.

He served as materials manager at the Borden Dairy plant in Plymouth; head of operations at Bell Laboratories in Madison; and plant manager at the Jelly Belly factory in North Chicago.

Rick left the state once again to become facility general manager at Monona Wire Corp. in Iowa. After three years, he returned to Wisconsin to become business unit general manager at Arimon Technologies in Manitowoc.

In all, Rick has held a wide range of positions, including production supervisor, planner, purchasing agent, project manager, division production control manager, plant manager and general manager. He has worked in the food, chemical, plastics and electronics industries.

Born and raised in the village of Sharon in Walworth County, Rick arrived at the WMEP in 2003 at a time when the organization focused mostly on lean manufacturing and quality.

“Lean was my thing, especially lean culture,” Rick recalls.

At first, he wasn’t sure he’d be around long enough to make an impact with the organization.

“I spent a year trying to get my first contract,” he said.

Landing a major lean transformation project with American Laser Products in Middleton changed all of that.

“I made up for it,” Rick said. “We really helped turn that business around.”

Reflecting on his career at the WMEP, Rick says he’s proud of the inroads he and the organization have made at a multitude of manufacturers.

“I spent a lot of time as a manager and it was like pulling teeth some time getting people to buy into what you were doing,” Rick said. “With the WMEP, I’ve had the ability to make some real change. Coming from the outside, people listened.”

Rick has also enjoyed working with the wide variety of small and midsize manufacturers that dot the state’s landscape and drive the economy.

“I’ve visited companies in three or four different industries in a single day,” Rick exclaims. “I even briefly worked with a bobby pin manufacturer. Who can say that?”

Rick’s departing words to the state’s manufacturers focus on the importance of change.

“You have to change if you want to get better,” he said. “It’s hard to change, but you can’t get significant improvement without it. It’s an amazing feeling when you can make dramatic changes.”

A resident of Oregon, Rick enjoys fishing and hunting and plans to do plenty of both in retirement. He also plans to spend time relaxing at his cabin on a 26-acre property that he recently purchased in Adams County.

He’ll also spend time with his daughter, Melanie, and her two daughters, who live in Poynette. And there will be no shortage of fishing stories to share with his son, Mike, who makes his home in Florida.

As he heads into retirement, Rick offered a strong endorsement of the WMEP.

“It’s a tremendous organization with a tremendous mission, with great people and strong management,” he said.