In 2004, Cargill CEO Warren Staley asked his wife what she wanted for her birthday.

Mary Lynn Staley wanted the family to spend a week building houses for the poor in Mexico with Habitat for Humanity. The Staleys' three adult children, who also are fluent in Spanish, embraced the idea.

One problem: The build was scheduled for the same week as Cargill's biennial management meetings.

Warren Staley decided to go anyway. The Staleys built sturdy abodes for a week with former President Jimmy Carter, volunteers and working-class Mexicans. The management meeting went on without him.

When they got back, the Staleys were congratulated by employees who thought it was a worthy birthday celebration.

"The employees knew it wasn't a hall pass so I could go to Napa Valley for a week and drink wine," quipped Staley. "They knew it was walking the walk of balance in your life."

The trip was also a harbinger of how Staley would spend a chunk of his retirement.

Staley led the world's largest private company for a decade and to its best-ever performance until he retired in 2007. A 38-year company veteran, Staley worked in operations, ran plants and negotiated deals from Argentina to China. Now the guy who used to think big is switching to thinking small, very small: building homes one at a time for Habitat and financing small loans to individuals in poor countries.

A life-changing experience

Staley, 66, an electrical engineer and MBA, and Mary Lynn Staley, a former public school teacher, began their careers a little differently than most corporate couples. They accepted a Ford Foundation fellowship in 1967, working with the poor in Cali, Colombia.

"It was mind-boggling and mind-expanding," recalled Mary Lynn Staley. "That was the first time we'd seen really poor people."

Warren Staley, son of a small-town Illinois teacher and railroad worker, was struck by the disparity between rich and poor, the lack of education and opportunity for people who ride buses three hours daily to menial jobs and arrogant employers who invested little in workers.

"I worked there at a development bank and in three businesses," he said. "I took away the attitude that you have to have a safe environment, a common culture and you have to teach and develop people. The business owners didn't seem to care."

It was no small coincidence that Warren Staley, son of the working class, would not have been allowed a chance to run a big Colombian business. That was the province of wealthy families. That has led to class conflict, drug wars and insurrection in what should be a prosperous country.

"The significance of that fellowship was not that these [college] graduates would go down and 'teach' these people something," Mary Lynn Staley said. "It was for them to go down and learn the language and culture and become friends, so that, when [the graduates] had power, they would not run roughshod over these people."

Warren Staley is a solid, conservative business man. He also supports education, training and opportunity for the dispossessed. The Staleys' "retirement" is going to reflect that, in addition to more time with their grandchildren and on the golf course.

This spring, the couple accepted awards for leadership, philanthropy and ethics from the Twin Cities United Way, the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership at the St. Mary's University and Kansas State University, where they graduated in 1965. That was the warm-up act.

Over the next several years, the Staleys plan to:

• Increase their involvement with Habitat. Mary Lynn has joined the Atlanta-based board of directors, in addition to hands-on and donor work.

• Complete the development stage of the Minnesota Education Leadership Foundation. The Cargill Foundation, other businesses and individuals have put up several million dollars to underwrite and test preschool and family-involvement programs to get immigrant and working-poor kids ready for kindergarten. Fifty percent of Minnesota kids aren't ready for school. Warren Staley is chairman of MELF.

• Build capacity in the developing world, such as Africa, through micro-lending. Mary Lynn Staley chairs the board of governors of Opportunity International, one of the world's oldest and largest microfinance organziations. It loans as little as $50 to poor entrepreneurs to start or expand businesses. The village-level lenders' average loan is $227. About 85 percent are made to women, the ones most likely to pay back a loan. The repayment rate since 1992 is a staggering 98 percent. The organization made 1.8 million loans totaling $702 million in 2007.

"For the longest time, the U.S. and other governments put money into many countries, including [those in] Africa, whose efforts turned out to be very inefficient and oftentimes filled with corruption," said Warren Staley. "Our job is to put people together, use 'mobile banks' so they don't have to walk a day-and-a-half [to deposit money] and help them provide for themselves and the developing world."

Changing Cargill

Some of this resonates with the way Warren Staley ran Cargill, once considered the agricultural industry's version of the CIA.

Over the past 20 years, as technology and the Internet provided quick access to the same information about weather and crop yields, and Russia and China opened to international markets, Cargill has evolved to become more of a partner to the farm, feed and food industry, in addition to commodity trading. From Vietnam to Argentina, Cargill invests heavily in training, promotes laborers to management. Local workforce councils invest up to 5 percent of plant profits annually in community needs, such as medical clinics or schools.

"I think what we did at Cargill [over the last decade] was to improve collaboration across the company," Warren Staley said. "We asked everybody to share their knowledge and capabilities. It had been too competitive internally. We wanted to help each other and in that we helped customers and improved our company and communities."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •