Cargill, Incorporated - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Cargill, Incorporated

Post Office Box 9300
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55440-9300

Company Perspectives:

Bringing together producer and consumer ... finding new and innovative ways to process and move basic goods and services efficiently and economically ... drawing upon years of knowledge and experience to meet the needs of today and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. Those are Cargill's commitments and its traditions.

History of Cargill, Incorporated

Cargill, Incorporated is the largest private corporation in the United States. Long known as a commodities merchant, Cargill in the early 21st century stood as one of the largest diversified services companies in the country, involved in nearly four dozen individual lines of business. In addition to merchandising grains, oilseeds, and other commodities, Cargill is a processor of beef, pork, and poultry (through the number three U.S. meat processor, subsidiary Excel Corporation), and several other products, including animal feed, cocoa, eggs, fertilizer, flour, and rice; a transporter of commodities; a manufacturer of steel (through subsidiary North Star Steel Co.); and a financial and technical services provider.

Cargill's corporate philosophy, shaped by its participation in the grain trade, emphasizes secrecy and an intricate worldwide intelligence network. Robert Bergland, former secretary of agriculture, told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune that 'they probably have the best crop-marketing intelligence available anywhere, and that includes the CIA.' While secrecy provides an enormous operational advantage to Cargill, it creates problems as well. For example, during difficult times, Cargill's low profile left no reservoir of favorable public opinion. After becoming president of Cargill in 1957, an exasperated Cargill MacMillan complained that the company received public attention only when it was involved in a court case. This situation remained largely unchanged until late in the 20th century when the company launched an unprecedented advertising campaign designed to bolster its public image.

Grain Trading Roots

William Wallace Cargill began his career in the grain business in 1865 in Conover, Iowa. The business grew as it followed the expansion of the railroad into northern Iowa after the Civil War. In 1875 William Cargill moved the headquarters of his company to La Crosse, Wisconsin. He formed several different partnerships with his brothers, Samuel and James. With Samuel he formed W.W. Cargill and Brother in 1867, which became the W.W. Cargill Company in 1892. James Cargill operated in the Red River Valley in North Dakota and Minnesota with a partner, John D. McMillan. In 1882 the partners sold their Red River Valley grain elevators to William Cargill in order to raise more capital. Then in 1888, James, William, and Sam Cargill formed Cargill Brothers. In 1890 this firm became the Cargill Elevator Company, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In 1895 William W. Cargill's daughter married John Hugh MacMillan, and later his son William S. Cargill also married a MacMillan. When the elder Cargill died in 1909, John Hugh MacMillan forced out William S. Cargill and took control of the company. An ensuing feud simmered for decades, but control of the company now rests firmly in the hands of the MacMillan family, although some Cargills still hold stock (along with a number of employees).

John MacMillan ran the company until 1936, leading it through a difficult period after the struggle for power. MacMillan was a cautious manager who established the rule that the company would not speculate in commodities, a careful policy that helped establish the company's reputation in banking circles--an important consideration since the large deals that became Cargill's mainstay required huge lines of credit.

After World War I, MacMillan took two steps that helped lay the foundation for the future growth of the company. Since its beginnings in 1865, Cargill had been based entirely in the Midwest, selling to eastern brokers. When brokers from Albany, New York, began to open offices in the Midwest, bypassing Cargill as a middleman, Cargill opened an office in New York in 1922. In 1929 Cargill opened a permanent office in Argentina to secure immediate information on Latin American wheat prices. In 1936 the Cargill Elevator Company merged with other Cargill firms to become Cargill, Incorporated.

John MacMillan, Jr., became president of Cargill in 1936. While maintaining many of his father's cautious policies, he also brought an imaginative and visionary quality to the company. During the Great Depression, Cargill invested heavily in the storage and transportation of grain, secure in the knowledge that a recovering economy would find Cargill prepared to reap maximum benefit. He also left his mark on grain transportation. Unsatisfied with the standard barge design, he and some associates designed a new type of articulated barge and submitted the design to shipyards. When no company would build the barges, Cargill established its own unit to construct them. Soon Cargill built barges at half the typical cost and with twice the capacity of standard barges.

At the same time, the aggressive nature of MacMillan's management style also created problems for the company, most notably in the September Corn Case of 1937. The 1936 corn crop had been poor, and the 1937 crop would not be available until October. The Chicago Board of Trade and the U.S. Commodity Exchange Authority accused Cargill of trying to corner the corn market. After Cargill refused a Board of Trade order to sell some of its corn, the board suspended Cargill Grain Company, the subsidiary that conducted trading, from membership. When the board eventually lifted its suspension, Cargill refused to rejoin. For decades, Cargill carried on its trading through independent traders and proclaimed its satisfaction with the greater security this method afforded. Nevertheless, it did rejoin in 1962.

Diversifying from the 1940s to the 1970s

By 1940, 60 percent of Cargill's business involved foreign markets, and World War II had a crippling effect on business. While Cargill did build ships for the U.S. Navy, this enterprise could not replace its lost international business, so the company began a major diversification program, entering into vegetable oil and animal feed. The two activities are closely related: pressing oil leaves high-protein meal, which is then used in animal feed. In 1943 Cargill entered the soybean processing business through the purchase of plants in Cedar Rapids and Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Springfield, Illinois. In 1945 Cargill purchased Nutrena Feeds, an animal-feed producer, thereby doubling its capacity in poultry and animal feeds. Corn and soybean processing were two of the most rapidly expanding agricultural areas in the 20 years after World War II, however, and oil processing soon outstripped the value of animal feeds. By 1949, Cargill had made a major entry into soybean processing, and its researchers were already exploring the value of safflower and sunflower oil.

John MacMillan, Jr., and his brother Cargill MacMillan were determined to expand the company after the war, but in a cautious manner that minimized risk. Cargill took the lead among the major grain companies in efforts to combine a network of inland grain elevators with the ability to export large quantities of grain. Two developments in the 1950s helped to establish Cargill in world trade. In 1953 Cargill opened a Swiss subsidiary, Tradax, to sell grain in Europe. Eventually, Tradax grew into one of the largest grain companies in the world. In 1960, Cargill opened a 13-million-bushel grain elevator in Baie Comeau, Quebec. This facility allowed Cargill to store grain for shipment during the months that winter weather closed the Great Lakes to traffic. The grain elevator also cut the cost of midwestern grain bound for Europe by 15 cents a bushel. In order to maximize profit, the barges that took grain to Baie Comeau hauled back iron ore. Similarly, in 1954 barges that carried grain to New Orleans began to backhaul salt up the Mississippi. Both practices would lead to profitable new enterprises for Cargill. Before the end of the decade, Cargill's sales topped the $1 billion mark.

Cargill became involved in grain sales to communist countries at an early date. In the early 1960s, Cargill began to sell grain to Hungary and the Soviet Union, while its Canadian subsidiary also played a significant role in trade with the Soviets. After a lapse in trade of several years during the late 1960s, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev resumed grain deals as part of his effort to improve the Soviet standard of living. At the same time, the United States, anxious to improve relations with the Soviet Union, eased trade restrictions. These developments set the stage for the famous grain purchase of 1972. The U.S.S.R. purchased 20 million tons of wheat--roughly one-fourth of the American harvest--of which Cargill sold one million tons.

While Cargill actually lost money on the sale, the ensuing change in the market was more important. The massive sale of wheat, combined with a worldwide drought, drove up agricultural prices and increased Cargill's profits in all areas of operations. Sales increased from $2.2 billion in 1971 to $28.5 billion in 1981. Together with Cargill's success in high-fructose corn syrup (it had entered the wet corn milling market in 1967 through the purchase of a mill in Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and animal feed, this boom financed a significant expansion: during that decade Cargill purchased 137 grain elevators; companies in the coal, steel (North Star Steel Company, bought in 1974), and cattle feedlot (Caprock Industries Inc., in 1974) industries; and Ralston Purina's turkey processing and marketing division (1974). The company also entered the flour milling industry through the purchase of Burrus Mills, which was based in Saginaw, Texas, in 1972; and began merchandising cotton in 1975 with the acquisition of Memphis, Tennessee-based Hohenberg Bros. Company. In 1979 beef processing was added to Cargill's growing array of operations with the purchase of MBPXL Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, which was renamed Excel Corporation in 1982. Also in 1979 came the purchase of the Laurent malt plant in France, which initiated Cargill's involvement in the malting business. Finally, in 1981, Cargill beefed up its trading operations with the acquisition of Ralli Bros. and Coney, a U.K.-based international trader of cotton, rubber, wool, and fiber.

Suffering from Slower Growth in the 1980s

The 1980s brought economic problems that slowed Cargill's growth. A 1980 U.S. government embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union left Cargill long on grain. While the government provided support for companies that were damaged by the embargo, a rise in the value of the dollar and a debt crisis in developing countries further burdened American agriculture firms. Cargill continued to search for opportunities in the depressed business cycle. Typical of its approach was the purchase of Ralston Purina's soybean-crushing plants in 1985. Overcapacity in the soybean industry did not dissuade Cargill. Whitney MacMillan pointed out that when a business is not doing well there is more room for improvement, and Cargill remained confident that investment during hard times would reap major rewards during the next rise in the business cycle.

Despite periodic downturns, Cargill had exhibited an impressive compound annual growth rate of 15.8 percent sustained over a 25-year period, based on net worth (from $95 million in 1966 to $3.7 billion in 1991). Part of this success was credited to its consistently strong management. Early in the 1930s, Cargill began one of the first management-trainee programs in the country. Cargill did not rely on business-school graduates but took trainees from a wide range of backgrounds and introduced them to the company's system. Cargill placed young executives in responsible positions quickly and groomed those who succeeded. This system proved its worth in 1960 when John MacMillan, Jr., died. For 16 years nonfamily employees ran the company under the leadership of Erwin Kelm. When Kelm retired in 1976, Whitney MacMillan, great-grandson of founder W.W. Cargill, became chairman. Most upper-level administrators at the company were graduates of Cargill's training program, and these officers, like family members, took the long view in planning for the welfare of the company.

As Cargill increasingly depended upon nonfamily members for leadership, the company faced several challenges starting in the mid-1980s that would force it to undergo its most dramatic transformation to date. From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, Cargill consistently failed to meet its company-wide sales targets primarily because of continued difficulties in grain merchandising, a sector that had never recovered from the 1980 embargo. Cargill's successes had also led to a bloated operation in which ConAgra Inc., its biggest customer, had to purchase products from 18 different Cargill divisions. Chairman Whitney MacMillan and most of the other senior leaders were nearing retirement age with no clear successor from the younger ranks in sight. Finally, some of the family members were lobbying for the opportunity to cash in on Cargill's success through more than the relatively modest annual dividends they received from their stock.

Reorganizing in the Early 1990s

With the help of consultants McKinsey & Company, MacMillan initiated a major reorganization of Cargill's North American operations in 1990. The previous organization along product lines was replaced with a 'soft matrix' type of structure, which intermixed product line and geographical area management. In order to bring fresh ideas into the organization, Cargill's board of directors was overhauled to include five members from management, five family shareholders, and five outside directors (the first outsiders in 40 years). The structure was also intended to allow the board to mediate between family members and Cargill management.

Such mediation would become more and more critical since Cargill faced the prospect of its first nonfamily CEO since the Erwin Kelm era of 1960-76. Only two fifth-generation family members worked for the firm, and neither had enough experience to take over when MacMillan retired. Eventually MacMillan selected Ernest S. Micek, former president of Cargill's food sector, as his successor. Micek was named president and chief operating officer in 1994 before taking over as CEO and chairman in August 1995. Still, at age 59, Micek was anticipating a short tenure (especially by Cargill standards), since company rules mandated retirement at age 65. MacMillan had retired after more than 44 years at the company.

Meanwhile, and amid false rumors that Cargill would finally go public, the issue of company ownership was at least temporarily settled through the implementation of an employee stock ownership plan in 1992. Family members were given the opportunity to cash in as much as 30 percent of their ownership stake in Cargill. It turned out that only 17 percent was sold, for a total of $730 million, funded through borrowing. About 20,000 Cargill employees in the United States were eligible to receive the resulting stock, ending a long history of ownership exclusively by Cargills and MacMillans.

To reduce Cargill's dependence on the perpetually fickle grain business, the company committed to a program of radical diversification. One aspect of this program was to no longer simply be a commodity merchandiser, but to process the commodities as well--what many called 'moving up the food chain.' Already an established meatpacker in the United States through its Excel subsidiary, Cargill opened a new plant in Alberta, Canada, in 1989 in the midst of a downturn in meat sales and became the top meatpacker in Canada by 1992. The company also began producing brand-name products for sale to consumers, such as its Sun Valley Poultry chickens and turkeys in England and its Honeysuckle White and Riverside turkeys in the United States. Through these efforts, Cargill was attempting to gain ground on competitors such as ConAgra, which had moved heavily into branded products throughout the 1980s. By 1993 Cargill was the third largest U.S. food company, behind only Philip Morris and ConAgra, and its annual food sales had reached as high as $22 billion.

A second area of diversification was the development of Cargill's Financial Markets Division. Based on knowledge gained through decades of trading in the world markets, this operation supported the efforts of the parent company and its subsidiaries through a full spectrum of financial services. Started in the mid-1980s and expanded rapidly in the early 1990s, the division generated almost $100 million in earnings for the 1992-93 fiscal year out of the company total of $358 million.

By the mid-1990s, Cargill had surprised many observers by its diversity in both operations and the locations of those operations. In addition to being the top grain company in the world and the number three food company in the United States, the company also boasted the eighth largest U.S. steel producer in its North Star Steel subsidiary, the top position in European cocoa processing, and the number one ranking among pet food processors in Argentina. For the fiscal year ending in May 1995, Cargill reported that its revenues exceeded the $50 billion mark for the first time, totaling about $51 billion, with net income standing at $671 million.

Early in the next fiscal year, Cargill exited from the U.S. chicken processing market when it sold five plants in Georgia and Florida to Tyson Foods Inc. The deal also involved the transfer of ownership of a pork processing facility in Marshall, Missouri, from Tyson to Excel, bolstering that subsidiary's position among the top five U.S. pork producers. Cargill retained its non-U.S. chicken operations as well as its turkey business. For fiscal 1996, Cargill reported record net income of $902 million on record sales of $55.98 billion. In 1997 the company became one of the largest producers and marketers of salt in the world with the purchase of the North American salt business of Akzo Nobel NV, an operation with annual revenues of about $450 million.

Economic Volatility and Major Transactions at the Turn of the Millennium

The economic turmoil that erupted in mid-1997 in Asia and then spread to Latin America and Russia sent global commodity markets into a deep slump, depressing both sales and earnings at Cargill. The company's financial services arm also suffered setbacks as it was involved in trading Russian financial instruments when that country's economy turned sour in the summer of 1998; the unit also lost millions through bad loans to buyers of mobile homes. Cargill earned only $468 million on revenues of $51.42 billion in fiscal 1998 and $597 million on $45.7 billion in sales the following year.

In the midst of these travails, in early 1998, Warren R. Staley was promoted from executive vice-president to president and COO. Staley became president and CEO in April 1999, then was named chairman as well in August 2000, following the retirement of Micek. This period was noteworthy for a number of major deals that Cargill was involved in. In early 1998 Cargill and Monsanto Company formed a biotechnology joint venture whereby Cargill would contract with farmers to grow crops containing Monsanto genes and would then process the resulting harvests into food and livestock feed ingredients. Then in October 1998 Cargill sold its foreign seed operations to Monsanto for about $1.4 billion. In September 1998 Cargill agreed to sell its North American seed operations, which controlled about 4 percent of the U.S. corn seed market, to AgrEvo GmbH, a joint venture of Hoechst AG and Schering AG, for $650 million. Soon thereafter, however, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. sued Cargill, Monsanto, and one other firm alleging that they had wrongfully obtained and used genetic material developed by Pioneer. Following an internal investigation, Cargill admitted that an employee had in fact improperly used Pioneer genetic material in his work at Cargill. Almost immediately, AgrEvo pulled out of the Cargill deal. Cargill was also forced to destroy some of its seed lines, which reduced the value of the business it sold to Monsanto, leading Cargill to return more than $200 million to Monsanto. In May 2000 Cargill agreed to pay $100 million to Pioneer to settle the lawsuit. Cargill then sold its North American seed operation in late 2000 to Dow Chemical Company for an undisclosed sum.

Meantime, in November 1998, Cargill agreed to acquire the worldwide grain storage, transportation, export, and trading operations of its chief rival, Continental Grain Company for an undisclosed sum that industry observers estimated at several hundred million dollars. The deal quickly aroused bitter opposition from farm groups and legislators across the Farm Belt concerned that Cargill would gain too much control of grain exports in a market already suffering from depressed commodity prices. The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit to block the deal. An agreement was reached in July 1999 whereby the government approved the deal contingent upon Cargill divesting nine grain-handling and transport facilities in eight states. This constituted a significant divestiture as it represented about 25 percent of Continental Grain's business.

In the midst of the Pioneer seed debacle and the contentious purchase of the Continental Grain assets, the normally secretive Cargill launched a surprising corporate image campaign. In January 1999 the company launched a three-year, $30 million ad campaign with a Super Bowl television spot and a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. The timing of the launch was purely coincidental as it had been planned the previous summer. The ads were aimed at farmers and food manufacturers and highlighted long-term relationships between the company and its customers. According to Micek, the company's executives hoped to 'put more of a human face on Cargill' through the campaign.

In January 2000 Cargill and Dow Chemical announced that a 50-50 joint venture called Cargill Dow Polymer would begin construction of a manufacturing plant in Blair, Nebraska, where a new kind of plastic made from plants rather than petroleum would be produced. In December 2000 Cargill announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Agribrands International, Inc. for $580 million, a deal that foiled a planned merger between Agribrands and Ralcorp Holdings Inc. Agribrands would be folded into Cargill Animal Nutrition, maker of feeds under such brands as Nutrena and Acco Feeds. Cargill would gain a much larger international presence through Agribrands' 70 plants in 17 countries, producing feeds under the brand names Purina, Chow, and Checkerboard. Agribrands had fiscal 2000 earnings of $45 million on revenues of $1.2 billion. Through this acquisition, Cargill would continue its steady expansion beyond its grain trading roots. At the dawn of the new millennium, the increasingly diversified Cargill seemed destined to remain one of the most powerful companies in the world.

Principal Subsidiaries: Caprock Industries Inc.; Cargill Citro-America, Inc.; Cargill Energy Corporation; Cargill Ferrous International; Cargill Fertilizer Inc.; Cargill Investor Services Inc.; Cargill Marine and Terminal, Inc.; Cargill Technical Services; Excel Corporation; Hohenberg Bros. Company; Illinois Cereal Mills Inc.; North Star Steel Co.; Wilbur Chocolate Company Inc.; Cargill Limited (Canada); Ralli Bros. and Coney (U.K.); Seaforth Corn Mills (U.K.).

Principal Competitors: Archer Daniels Midland Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; IBP, inc.; Smithfield Foods, Inc.; Hormel Foods Corporation; Sara Lee Corporation; Corn Products International, Inc.; Ag Processing Inc.; Agribrands International, Inc.; Cenex Harvest States Cooperative; ContiGroup Companies, Inc.; Saskatchewan Wheat Pool; Ajinomoto Co., Inc.; Eridania Béghin-Say; Farmland Industries, Inc.; Perdue Farms Incorporated; Tate & Lyle PLC; The Dow Chemical Company; E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.


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Further Reference

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