David MacLennan sees open and honest communication as a priority at the agribusiness giant.
In 2000, nine years after he joined Cargill Inc., David MacLennan felt his career had stalled. He was a top leader in Cargill’s financial business, but he seemed pigeonholed as a finance guy, unable to move up in the company.
So he left, figuring he would never return. This was Cargill after all — the venerable Minnesota agribusiness giant still mostly owned by its founding families. Company leaders were almost always lifers, devotees to the Cargill creed.
“When I said goodbye, I thought this is it, they’re erasing my name off any document I ever wrote — I never existed,” MacLennan joked. More seriously, he said, in Cargill culture, “when the door closes, you’re done.”
But as the culture changed, the company rehired MacLennan in 2002 and put him on a new career path. On Sunday, MacLennan, 54, starts as Cargill’s chief executive, only the ninth in the company’s 148-year history.
He will pilot one of the world’s largest privately held companies, with $137 billion in annual revenue, 142,000 employees and interests in everything from chocolate to road salt — all spread over 67 countries. He takes the helm as the corporate behemoth works to create a more nimble culture.
That means communications barriers in the Cargill bureaucracy must fall. It’s a job that starts at the top, with the CEO either setting a regal tone or creating an atmosphere that invites questioning — without fear of getting slapped down.
“Part of internal transparency is having people come up to you and say “Hey, this is what I think is wrong — do you know about this?” rather than, “Oh boy, there’s the CEO, I better not say anything,” MacLennan said.
MacLennan, Cargill’s chief operating officer, was named CEO in September to succeed Greg Page, who is retiring. Page, who played a key role in bringing MacLennan back to Cargill, will remain as the company’s executive chairman.
MacLennan’s exposure to Cargill started young: His father, Everett, was a grain merchant for the company. Cargill moved his dad from post to post, so the Boston-born MacLennan grew up in Toledo, Buffalo, and Chicago before his family moved to the Twin Cities when he was a teenager.
“Until recently, I never had the same mailing address for more than five years in my whole life, ” MacLennan said, noting that his own postings within Cargill included stints in England and Switzerland.
After graduating from Edina East High School, MacLennan went back to Massachusetts to Amherst College, where he majored in English. During his senior year, he snared an internship at a Chicago trading company, working in the Board of Trade’s wheat pit.
It was a time before computers took over trading, when a tightly packed group of mostly men screamed and yelled out buy and sell orders. “I was hooked,” MacLennan said. “This was fascinating — instantaneous price discovery. The market’s going up, it’s going down. You felt that energy.”
MacLennan took a job at the Chicago firm, Goldberg Securities, after college. He started at the bottom, running orders to and from the trading floor. But the idea was to move into management, and MacLennan did so as he took night classes at the University of Chicago, earning an MBA with a specialty in finance.
“He was a prodigious worker, always the first one in and the last one out, ” said MacLennan’s former boss Dave Goldberg, who’s now retired. “He caught on to the business very well.”
Goldberg sold out to an English firm in the late 1980s. MacLennan stayed on for a while, but eventually sensed his first career plateau. He went home to the Twin Cities one weekend and asked his dad, “Would Cargill ever hire someone like me?” His dad said no.
The answer was rooted in his dad’s own tenure at Cargill, when the firm was more of a traditional grain-trading house. “He was thinking, ‘You come from the financial world, you have an MBA, and we hire guys to be grain merchants,’ ” MacLennan said.
A changing company
But in the 1970s, Cargill began evolving into the company it is today, moving into such diverse businesses as cocoa, cotton and meat processing. By the late 1980s, Cargill had established its own financial and risk management business. Even MacLennan’s dad eventually came around to the possibilities.