Jul 11, 2011 • By

A lifetime of inventions

Before he dreams up the next gadget, before he draws up blueprints or repairs a gizmo, before he steps up to solve a problem that could cost a company millions of dollars, inventor Bob Zoss always asks one question.

What does the consumer want?

“The most important part of innovation involves understanding the consumer’s needs,” says Bob, who retired last year after almost 40 years with General Mills. “We need to understand the customers’ needs even better than they do. The better we understand them, the better we can apply technology that leads to innovations.”

Bob knows a little something about innovation. He’s one of the company’s most prolific inventors with five patents and 58 invention records, and a record of saving the company tens of millions of dollars in equipment modification and configuration.

He’s also a technical pioneer. His 1978 research on sodium reduction in cereal serves as one of the pillars for sodium reduction efforts today. He designed a breakthrough way of incorporating flavor chips in frostings. He created the nonstick backing for Fruit Roll-Ups and invented the Gilmont package integrity tester, a device that uses compressed air to test a package’s ability to withstand moisture.

He’s even investigated the best ways to raise shrimp.

Throughout his career, Bob says he’s been encouraged to think beyond his day-to-day activities, to move and grow into other departments and to think outside the box when it comes to the consumer.

“The risks are greater when you try something new, but the rewards can be huge,” he says. Bob was hugely rewarded last year with the company’s Bell Lifetime Achievement Award.

So physically fit he could wipe a 20-year-old on the tennis court, he also keeps his mind challenged at every turn. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” he says describing how he recently rigged his home TV system to be completely controlled by his homemade computer.

But Bob isn’t just puttering about in his garage. He’s twice been called out of retirement to troubleshoot for General Mills and is currently working on a project involving one of its major foodservice customers.

Bob is passionate about his experience at General Mills. At every turn, he’ll tell you how much he loves his work, the people and the company that fostered the freedom and creativity that allowed him to grow.

“This may sound corny, but I’ve never looked at my job as work,” he says. “I was always having too much fun.”