Chairman and chief executive officer, Bunge
Education: Universidade de São Paulo, BA.
Career: BASF, 1979–1993, various finance-related positions; Bunge, 1993–1999, CFO; 1999–2001, CEO; 2001–, chairman and CEO.
Address: Bunge, 50 Main Street, Sixth Floor, White Plains, New York 10606; http://www.bunge.com.
■ Alberto Weisser was appointed chief executive officer of Bunge in January 1999 and was elected chairman of the board in May 2001. He had joined Bunge in July 1993 as its chief financial officer and had been elected to the board of directors in 1995. During his years with Bunge, Weisser helped to expand the conservative, once family-owned agribusiness company through numerous key acquisitions, including its largest acquisition of the French agribusiness company Cereol in 2003. Though the name Bunge is scarcely known to the average American, its raw foods go into many well-known and popular brands, including products made by General Mills, Frito-Lay, Kellogg Company, and Nestlé.
In 1818 Johann Peter Gottlieb Bunge, a Dutch grain trader, founded Bunge in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, as a grain-trading business. The company grew to become a leading commodity-trading company within the consumer/noncyclical sector of the food-processing industry. The company's headquarters was eventually moved south to Rotterdam; in 1859 it relocated still further south to Antwerp, Belgium. Bunge later made a major move to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and still later to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in both of which countries it capitalized on the rapidly growing grain trade.
Over the next century descendants of the Bunge founder built a thriving international business, expanding into North America, Asia, and Australia. However, the talented but oldfashioned family management team could not compete against the world's emerging multinational corporations. Also, the team could not appease the feuding factions of family shareholders and could not deal with the changing political climate in South America. To save the company, outside management was recruited—Alberto Weisser was a part of that influx.
Weisser earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and participated in several postgraduate programs at the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also attended the Management Development Program at INSEAD in Cedex, France. Before his relationship with Bunge, Weisser worked for 15 years, from 1979 to 1993, in various finance-related positions with the German petrochemicals giant BASF in Brazil, Germany, the United States, and Mexico.
In 1990, with the global marketplace expanding after physical and ideological barriers were broken down at the end of the Cold War, the family-owned Bunge changed its general strategies in order to have access to more financial capital and to end the bickering that continued between family members. Professional management was brought in beginning in 1992, and the company prepared itself to become a publicly traded company in order to gain access to equity markets. Weisser joined Bunge in July 1993 as its chief financial officer.
Weisser immediately began to focus Bunge on agribusiness and food production while divesting the company of noncore assets. To emphasize the trading of soybeans, grain, and fertilizer, Weisser directed the sale of all of the company's consumer food-processing firms, except Bunge Alimentos in Brazil, which dealt with soybeans and margarine.
In 1999 Weisser—who had become chairman of the board and chief executive officer—moved the company to White Plains, New York, in order to be closer to New York City, the center of international finance and trade. In August 2001 Weisser listed the now publicly traded Bunge on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol BG.
Weisser concentrated on three principles that he felt would best sharpen the company's focus within the agribusiness industry. Knowing that Bunge needed to grow in order to survive and prosper, he carefully acquired companies that matched Bunge's strategic plan; he reduced expenses; and he emphasized efficiency. Weisser coordinated ocean shipments more concertedly to allow for intermediate pick-up and drop-off spots along any particular route, and he implemented the backhauling of cargo to its point of origination in order to save costs. Weisser also helped to consolidate the company into three main divisions: agribusiness, food products, and fertilizers. Integration across the company helped Bunge to take advantage of the synergies among these divisions; the resulting cohesion made Bunge an efficient, low-cost operator—Weisser's original intent.
Bunge's agribusiness division was its largest, accounting for about 78 percent of sales. The division comprised three subdivisions: grain origination, soybean production/oilseed processing, and international marketing. Weisser helped Bunge to develop processes in which commodities such as soybeans and other oilseeds, grown primarily in North and South America, were processed as animal feed, food products, and vegetable oil in the Americas and in Europe. These operations were about equally divided between North America, South America, and Europe, providing a continuous supply of raw and processed oilseeds in all locations. Bunge Global Markets—the international sales and marketing subdivision within agribusiness—sold commodities throughout the world, including in the largest growth markets: the European Union, China, and India. It operated 21 offices in 18 countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas in order to provide worldwide coverage to all of the major oil consumption markets.
The production of shortenings, edible oils, mayonnaise, and baked goods made up the majority of operations within Bunge's food-products division. Its subdivisions were origination, processing, and global logistics. The food-products division used raw materials and processed products from the agribusiness division to reduce overall external procurement and logistics costs. Weisser developed this ability to the point where almost three-quarters of the raw materials used to manufacture these products were sourced from within Bunge's network.
With better quality control in place due to the company's ability to track foods through the entire production process, Weisser concluded that food retailers and food-service providers would be much more likely to choose Bunge over its competitors. Weisser believed that such an integrated process would also provide a safer and more accessible food supply.
As of 2004 Bunge was the only vertically integrated fertilizer producer in South America and was Brazil's leading manufacturer and seller of fertilizer and phosphate-based animal-feed products. Weisser expanded the company's ability to extend credit to farmers in the form of fertilizer, which was then repaid with crops, in order to guarantee supplies, strengthen relationships, and reduce risks. Further efficiencies were instituted when the same transport vehicles imported fertilizers to inland elevators and exported grains to ships waiting at coastal ports. These strategies and the company's positive relationship with Brazilian and Argentine farmers helped Bunge maintain a unique and dominant position in its South American markets.
In 2004 Brazil was the world's fastest-growing fertilizer market, increasing at an average rate of 7 percent during the last half of the 1990s and into the 2000s. Unforested, arable lands were being rapidly cultivated for soybean and corn production. Since Brazil had the world's largest reserve of such lands, these two crops were projected to account for more than 60 percent of the country's fertilizer demand between 2005 and 2010. Under the direction of Weisser, Bunge was poised to take advantage of these future demands.
The July 2002 acquisition of Cereol, the France-based company also running operations in North America and Europe, made Bunge the world's leading oilseed-processing company, principally processing soybeans, canola, rapeseed, and sunflower seed. Cereol was also involved in the integrated manufacturing, distribution, and sale of food oils, meals for animal nutrition, and food ingredients such as lecithins and proteins. The acquisition orchestrated by Weisser increased Bunge's efficiency as a result of refined logistics and increased volumes. The deal also expanded Bunge's global customers base, enabled the company to position itself to maximize its growth rate, increased employee opportunities, and resulted in a more stable financial profile due to a wider product portfolio. Weisser realized at the time of purchase that the Cereol acquisition would help to partially offset the volatile operating environment in agribusiness.
In 2003, Weisser directed a joint venture between Bunge and DuPont: The Solae Company would leverage each company's respective strengths in soy protein isolates and concentrates. Anticipating the future demand for soybean-based products, Weisser helped develop a biotechnology alliance in order to develop enhanced soybeans. This technology-based partnership was expected to turn into one of the world's leading developers and marketers of branded, soy-based specialty-food ingredients.
In 2004, under the direction of Weisser, Bunge produced more bottled salad and cooking oils than any company in the world. It was also the leading soybean producer in the Americas and was either a regional or international producer in everything from animal feed and fertilizers to pie fillings and cake mixes. Through its North American subsidiary, Bunge was a major U.S. food processor. The company operated a variety of businesses throughout the world in a number of the most rapidly expanding markets, processed one-fifth of the world's soybeans, and distributed oilseeds and grains throughout five continents. The acquisition of Cereol in 2003 made Bunge the world's largest oilseed producer, with net sales of $22.165 billion in 2003 and about 24,000 employees at over four hundred facilities in 29 countries around the world. With the help of Weisser, the company became the world's leading bottled vegetable oil seller, corn dry miller, and canola oil producer; North America's top supplier of edible oil and premium shortenings to the foodservice industry and a leading oilseed processor; South America's largest wheat miller and vegetable oil producer, largest overall exporter of agricultural products, and a leading fertilizer producer; Brazil's top manufacturer and seller of flours and mixes; Europe's leading supplier of soybean meal; China's leading supplier of soybean products; and India's leading exporter of soybean oil.
Under Weisser's leadership, Bunge became well positioned to capitalize on the world's growing demand for soybeans and other oilseed products. In the past, only one company—Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM)—had dominated the grain-processing market; Bunge joined ADM in a strong position within the industry. Weisser then took a cautious approach in leading Bunge into processing expansion around the world.
The company was already operating in India and Southeast Asia and was making some inroads into China. These three areas contained more than 50 percent of the world's population; Weisser acknowledged that they would increasingly demand more of Bunge's products. However, Weisser knew that mere expansion for the sake of expansion would not be beneficial, so he carefully investigated each country or area to ensure expansion would make sense and provide the company with the correct opportunities.
In China, for instance, Weisser developed a large team that dealt directly with customers. Although no processing plants had yet been built there, Weisser closely assessed the market, which consisted of about two thousand crush factories receiving soybeans from the half billion farmers throughout the nation. Weisser expected that opportunities in the market, which had a projected annual value of $2 billion, would soon become apparent as economic and political factors unfolded. These opportunities could come through consolidation, outright purchasing of existing assets, or the building of new facilities. In an article with Lyle Niedens, Weisser referred to his careful planning of long-term strategies in saying, "We have two hundred years of history. We plan to be in business another two hundred years, at least" (February 11, 2004).
Weisser was a member of the board of directors of Ferro Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio, a global producer of performance materials for manufacturers. He was also a member of the Rabobank North American Agribusiness Advisory Board. The advisory board was composed of food and agribusiness leaders from academic and research institutions who provided guidance on industrial and political developments to Rabobank, a global company based in the Netherlands, which provided financial services to agribusiness organizations.
Bunge Web site, http://www.bunge.com .
Caplen, Brian, "Latin America: Decline of an Argentine Dynasty," Euromoney , January 1999, http://salsa.babson.edu/Pages/Articles/99-01%20EM%20Bunge.htm .
Niedens, Lyle, "Regarding Opportunities in China, Bunge Wants to Stay 'Relaxed,'" BakingBusiness.com , February 11, 2004, http://www.bakingbusiness.com/headline_stories.asp?ArticleID=69839 .
—William Arthur Atkins