Cargill Inc.’s quarterly profit doubled and its yearly net income grew for the third consecutive year, even as the agriculture behemoth frets over a U.S.-China trade war.
Minnetonka-based Cargill on Thursday posted net earnings of $711 million in its fiscal fourth quarter ending May 31, compared to $347 million in the same period a year ago. Cargill is the largest private company in the U.S. by revenue and reports limited financial results to the public.
The company recorded its third straight year of growth in 2018 with a $3.1 billion profit, up 9 percent from last year. Cargill outperformed its high 2017 financial marks across all of its core businesses: grain trading, food ingredients and protein — including beef, eggs and animal feed. Its industrial and financial services business posted the only segment decline with lower returns from its fund investments and a soft fourth quarter.
Cargill has made significant changes over the past three years to its organizational structure, reducing management layers and business units, and has become more global in its view.
“What you see coming through, both last year and this year, is pretty broad-based [financial] improvement,” said Marcel Smits, Cargill’s chief financial officer.
Its animal nutrition and protein segment was once again the largest contributor to the company’s strong performance as consumer demand for beef, particularly in North America, continues to grow. That demand, coupled with a strong supply of cattle, means “the beef industry that sits in the middle is doing very well,” said Smits.
Cargill is also seeing success in its value-added egg products, which include pre-made entrees, patties and other convenience-oriented products used by restaurants, hotels and cafeterias. Cargill also saw global demand for feed additives and micronutrients grow in animal nutrition, while its global poultry business saw moderate declines as an oversupply of chicken in Thailand depressed its results there.
The company’s food-ingredients business grew for the third straight year, aided significantly by its cocoa and chocolate sector. Cargill expanded its global footprint in the chocolate supply chain in 2014 by purchasing rival Archer Daniels Midland’s North American chocolate operations for $440 million.
The agribusiness is seeing success with its Cargill Cocoa Promise, a sustainability certification. Smits said this program used to account for a very small percentage of sales but is now more than half of all its cocoa sales. While global demand for chocolate is high, the company also attributes some of the segment’s improved performance to operational changes.
And while the low commodities market challenged Cargill’s hallmark grain-trading business throughout its 2018 fiscal year, this began to change in the fourth quarter with prices rising due to a drought in Argentina, among other factors. As a result, the company’s origination and processing segment posted its best fourth quarter in seven years.
Cargill is at the forefront of the U.S. pro-trade business community opposing the Trump administration’s recent trade policy decision to impose protective tariffs on other countries.
David MacLennan, Cargill’s chairman and chief executive, referenced this issue in its earnings release. “Our strong results show we are creating the connections the world needs for vibrant food and agriculture both today and tomorrow,” MacLennan said. “And we are standing up for inclusive global trade that lets food move freely.”
When asked how these tariffs could impact Cargill’s bottom line, Smits said U.S. farmers would take the greater hit.
“First and foremost we are concerned about the American farmers,” Smits said. “In the short term, we have assets around the world” that allow Cargill to supply its global customers with goods from other countries.