A look at Cargill marking its 150th

by Morton Sosland
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As a company that was founded in grain, prospered in grain trading and built a globe-circling business of hugely impressive proportions, Cargill deserves the admiration it is receiving this year in marking its 150th anniversary. Yes, there are privately-owned and public companies operating with headquarters in the United States that have an equally distinguished record of building businesses from origins in grain, but what Cargill has achieved in the past century and a half is different enough that it merits praise. This company is not just an unparalleled exemplar of success but also proof of how the principles it espouses so clearly may be pursued not just for selfish benefit but for advancing all the world.

From the viewpoint of this publication, devoted to the grain-based foods business, Cargill’s presence has been a powerful force almost from the birth of this magazine 93 years ago. The company’s insistence on free and open trade between American states and equally important, between countries of the world, is a stand that has not always been easy. Yet, even when it seemed appealing to impose embargoes as a quick way of punishing supposed enemies or in an effort to produce a response, Cargill never hesitated in declaring its misgivings. When international negotiations aimed at producing global agreements that would affect trade patterns across the globe were being negotiated, it was often Cargill that volunteered the guidance of expert executives. As a result, rules, regulations and tariffs that impact global trade in grain, with results that have benefited buyers and sellers as well as producers, reflect the views of this company.

Of the many advances in how business in grain is done that may be directly attributed to this company, hardly anything is more important than its leadership in bringing revolutionary efficiencies to shipping, on land and on water. It was Cargill that pressed for bulk cars in shipping grain in a complete shift from standard boxcars that were clumsy and costly. When bulk rail car shipping first emerged and then was intensified by multi-car trainloads, this development prompted many questions because it promised to undermine railroad rate-making that had ruled for the prior century. In questioning the wisdom of such radical change, this page will never forget the scathing communication that came from Cargill pointing out the obvious advantages.

Flour milling, the basic part of grain-based foods that is the heart of this magazine, was actually a latecomer to the Cargill panoply. Making its serious entry into milling well into the company’s second century, the company entered the industry by purchasing a Texas entity. Having been persuaded that it ought not overlook the opportunities in milling, which depend part on many aspects related also to grain trading, the company pursued capacity expansion through a series of acquisitions that quickly created one of the nation’s largest flour milling companies. Its intentions became crystal clear in the past year by establishing a partnership ranking as the world’s largest milling company.

While the way Cargill had adhered to its principles, not just in how international trade should be conducted, but also in its dealings with customers and its own staff, as well as governments, accounts for the amazing financial success, sight must not be lost of how change is also embraced when deemed appropriate. For instance, there was a time when partnering was anathema to the people in charge, with collaborating in that way viewed as making no sense. The Cargill of today is not only committed to partnering in businesses like flour milling, but has pursued a similar attitude in dealing with its customers who are often referred to as partners. This is just a single example of what accounts for this company’s ability to achieve greatness. Yet, at the same time, there are no secrets, meaning that similar progress is available to anyone who is willing to give it the same enthusiastic try.
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