Cargill Inc. has amassed its largest profit in years thanks to growing demand for meat at home and abroad.
The Minnetonka-based agribusiness on Thursday reported increased earnings across all four of its major business segments for its 2017 fourth quarter and fiscal year, which ended May 31. Chief Executive David MacLennan attributed the strong financial results to a two-year restructuring efforts and favorable market conditions.
“The past two years have seen significant work to improve performance and position the company for growth,” MacLennan said in a release. “The structural improvements we’ve made, as well as favorable conditions in some markets, have yielded strong results.”
Americans are eating more beef after a decade of decline, and for Cargill — one of the world’s four largest beef producers — that means an improved bottom line.
Cargill’s protein business was the biggest contributor to its $2.84 billion profit for the year, a 19 percent increase over 2016 results. Cheaper corn and fuel brought down beef-production costs, which softened retail prices in calendar year 2016. As a result, Americans, on average, ate 55.6 pounds of beef in 2016 — a pound and a half more than in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cargill’s 2017 fiscal year began in June 2016 and ended May 2017.
Cargill also tapped into a growing middle class in some of the world’s most populated regions. The company saw growth in beef exports last year and reaped the benefit from its investment in poultry in Southeast Asia. Increased exports of cooked chicken from the region led to higher yearly earnings in poultry.
The company’s egg business also received a boost from stronger demand in the food service channel, which sells to hospitals, universities, schools and other institutions. Europeans bought more fresh chicken and sales of the white meat are improving in China.
But it’s not just meat and eggs that boosted Cargill’s adjusted yearly earnings of $3 billion, an 85 percent improvement over 2016. As the world’s largest commodities trader, Cargill saw improved results in food ingredients across the globe, especially cocoa-, corn- and wheat-based products. Cargill opened two new food innovation centers — one in Shanghai and the other in the Twin Cities.
The company’s heritage business, Origination & Processing, moves grains and oilseeds between users globally. This segment saw improvements in both the fourth quarter and full-year results in large part due to growing global demand for feed in livestock production.
Its industrial and financial services business also posted improved earnings through better returns on its asset investments and improved conditions for the company’s ocean shipping enterprise.
Cargill is a privately held behemoth with businesses in a wide array of sectors. Since MacLennan took the helm in 2015, Cargill has taken a critical look at its businesses and has been more active in acquisitions and divestitures. The company has also simplified its leadership structure and consolidated business units and is now seeing the payoff of those actions, said Marcel Smits, Cargill’s chief financial officer.
“Obviously, if we print a $3 billion number, that’s a really good number,” Smits told the Star Tribune. “All segments show an uptick. That broad-based improvement is really gratifying.”
Last year, Cargill sold its U.S. crop inputs business while adding two plant-based bio-industrial companies to its portfolio and expanding its oilseed crushing capabilities in Brazil and with a new facility in northern China. But the company sold two oilseed processing plants in France and the Netherlands, as well as its 40 percent share in an Australian flour-milling venture.
Since the start of its 2018 fiscal year, Cargill has acquired Pollos El Bucanero, one of Colombia’s top chicken and processed-meat producers, and completed the sale of its petroleum trading business to Australia’s Macquarie Group. It has also agreed to sell its natural gas and power business, also to Macquarie, in a separate transaction this summer.
Cargill will continue to look for ways to optimize its portfolio, but will likely slow the pace of acquisitions and divestitures, Smits said.
“The last two years have been particularly intense,” Smits said, as the company has been focused on what he broadly described as a mantra of, “Let’s go and do things better.” Now, the company is looking internally at how it can do things differently.
The company also repurchased $2.1 billion in long-term debt that it had issued between 2007 and 2009 when commodity prices were high. The repurchase represents about 20 percent of its overall $9 billion in debt.
The company’s fourth-quarter profit was $347 million, a significant improvement over its $15-million profit during the same period in 2016. Revenue grew 4 percent to $28.3 billion.