For many companies, acquisitions and new plant investments are a matter of "if." For agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., it's a matter of where and when.

Just over the past nine months, the company has unveiled more than $1.5 billion worth of transactions, ranging from the $800 million buyout of an Australian grain trading operation to a $30 million investment in a new plant in Russia that will churn out Chicken McNuggets for McDonald's.

As it scouts the world for its best business opportunities, Cargill is concentrating on areas where growth is heating up fastest -- often in distant countries like Brazil and Indonesia.

It has money to spend. Over the past decade the Minnetonka-based company has doubled in size, producing a cornucopia of foods and commodities from beef and barley malt to sugar and salt. A recent decision to divest its 64 percent stake in Plymouth-based fertilizer maker Mosaic Co. will only give it more financial firepower to extend its reach.

A major goal of the $20 billion-plus deal was to allow Cargill to cash out one of its largest shareholders -- the late Margaret Cargill -- to fulfill her philanthropic goals. But the divestiture will also enable Cargill to extinguish a hefty $8 billion-plus in corporate debt. That will bolster its financial flexibility and give it more capacity for acquisitions and investments.

"Companies with strong balance sheets have more choices," Cargill Chief Executive Greg Page said in a recent interview with the Star Tribune.

Page, 59, has been Cargill's chief executive since spring 2007, steering the company through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, staying profitable and keeping the Cargill and MacMillan families happy.

Those families own about 90 percent of the company, and they let it reinvest most of its profits in growth. Page, a 37-year Cargill veteran, described the dividends they receive as "modest."

Indeed, Cargill's dividend payouts in 2008 and 2007 were respectively 10.3 percent and 14.9 percent of profits, regulatory filings show. The average dividend payout rate among companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index has averaged 43 percent over the past decade.

"A lot of factors go into [our] growth story," Page said. "But the foundational one is the families' willingness to leave the overwhelming majority of our cash flow in the company."

World traveler

Page presides over a company with more than $100 billion in annual sales, more than any other company in Minnesota. It employs 131,000 people in an empire that spans 66 countries. Page estimates that he spends 90 to 100 days a year outside of the Twin Cities tending to Cargill matters, mostly overseas. His itinerary over the past year has included India, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, China, Japan and Malaysia.

The company's business has grown ever more complex, evolving away from pure commodities and going deeper into the food chain in the process. About 25 years ago, a Cargill beef plant in the United States might cut and grind cattle into 25 different products. Today, Page said, that number would be around 700.

Cargill still sells railroad tank cars full of vegetable oil to packaged food companies, as it has for decades, but it also turns vegetable oil into sachets of sauce for restaurants.

The United States remains Cargill's largest place of business, and it's still growing here: Witness a $120 million sugar mill expected to open in Louisiana this year. But like most multinational corporations, it gravitates to where gross domestic product is growing fast, such as the "BRIC" countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

"We try to rebalance the mix of our investment to more carefully reflect where the globe's GDP has evolved ... the regions that are taking up a greater share of the world's growth," Page said.

Cargill has the financial depth and product line breadth to span the globe as few can. "There aren't many companies like Cargill that can make plays all over the world," said Mike Boland, an agribusiness management professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences. "Cargill is such a unique thing."

Just last week, Cargill announced it would invest $210 million in a new cornstarch and sweetener plant in Brazil. On another end of the food spectrum, late last year Cargill announced a $350 million buyout of Unilever's Brazilian tomato sauces business.

Brazil is a huge repository of Cargill investment, and Page described China and India as the "big media stars of global economic growth."

But, he said, "it's bigger than that and much more balanced." He points to the vibrant economies of southeast Asia, where he worked for Cargill in the 1980s and 1990s, first at its Singapore regional headquarters and later at its massive chicken processing operation in Thailand.

While China is a vital market, Cargill actually employs more people in both Thailand and Indonesia, the latter home to its palm oil business. A few months ago, Cargill broadened its investment in Indonesia, shelling out $300 million for an 85 percent stake in PT Sorini Agro Asia Corporindo Tbk, a top producer of the ingredient sorbitol.

Trouble spots

From Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, the trend in recent decades has been for nations to largely welcome investment from the likes of corporations such as Cargill. But old-school restrictions and challenges remain.

One example is Venezuela, where Cargill has a heavy investment and about 2,000 employees. The company sells a bevy of branded food products to Venezuelan consumers: pasta, flour, rice, fruit juice and vegetable oil.

In early 2009, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expropriated a Cargill rice mill for allegedly violating food security laws, one of a number of state takeovers of private businesses there. The Venezuela-U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated a year ago that Venezuela owed $12 billion to at least 20 companies for seizures, and more foreign assets have been taken since.

Despite the issues, Venezuela is an important place to be because it still has a large petroleum-based economy. "That mix of huge [oil revenue] inflows combined with a terribly strident socialism on the domestic scene I think is unique," Page said.

The revolution in Egypt and the current tense political standoff in Ivory Coast are also both felt at Cargill. Egypt is a huge wheat importer and therefore a prime Cargill customer. Ivory Coast is the world's biggest cocoa producer and a major supplier for Cargill's cocoa and chocolate operations.

Page is used to receiving convoluted missives from such far-flung places. "I get some of the most interesting e-mail in Minneapolis," he said. "You can take that 'interesting' euphemism wherever you want to take it."

Star Tribune staff writer Chris Serres contributed to this report. Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003