Ernest "Ernie" Micek had a knack for multiplying time — or at least that's the only way those close to him can explain all that he accomplished.
Micek, who ascended from poor farm boy in western Wisconsin to chief executive of one of the world's largest private companies, Cargill Inc., died last month after a long illness. He was 84.
A child of Polish immigrants Frank and Maggie Micek, he and his three siblings grew up on a rocky and hilly farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse near Arcadia, Wis. He went on to study chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin and was immediately hired upon graduating in 1959 by Cargill to work as night shift supervisor at an oilseeds plant in Norfolk, Va. From there, Micek gradually climbed the ladder, working solely for the mammoth agribusiness — which he helped make bigger — for his entire 42-year career.
Micek's most pivotal post was as manager of a corn milling facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that Cargill had acquired. In that job, he made Cargill a leading maker of high-fructose corn syrup and led the company into other value-added processing of commodities.
"When he was first appointed to that job in wet corn milling, he worked so hard to learn the technologies and all that went with it. He would spend hours at the library and with books to really learn it. I marveled at his hard work," said Jack Burkhalter, a college friend of Micek's who also worked his way up in Cargill to become an operations manager in the dry milling division.
After turning corn milling into Cargill's most profitable business, Micek was appointed head of the company's entire food sector.
Micek became chief operating officer in 1994, and CEO Whitney MacMillan, a member of the Cargill founding family, groomed Micek to succeed him.
In 1995, Micek became only the second nonfamily member to be CEO in Cargill's 130-year history. He retired after four years at the helm, but his tenure marked Cargill's historic turn into a professionally managed company.
"Cargill was a very, very Ivy League-oriented company at that time. Most of the top management came from fairly well-to-do families and schools and Ernie was a bit of an outsider in that way," Burkhalter said. "I think he was motivated by the fact that he had very modest beginnings and he wanted to prove to the world and himself that he could succeed."
He married his high school sweetheart, Sally Gautsch, and they raised four children.
"You would never know he was at the top of one of the largest companies in the world. He never bragged about it. He never lived an ostentatious life. His favorite vehicle [in retirement] was a 2005 bright red Dodge Ram pickup," said Scott Micek, his son.
"He traveled the world over, dined with world trade leaders and presidents and never lost sight of his origins," said his daughter, Stephanie Luetkehans. "To me, he was my dad. He was absolutely an extraordinary man."
In retirement, Micek was appointed to various trade adviser and representative roles in the Asia-Pacific region as well as Africa under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He also served on university boards, led fundraising for educational facilities and was chairman of the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin.
"It was almost like he could multiply time," Luetkehans said. "He was somebody who just made the most of every minute of every day."
He is survived by his wife; son Scott; daughters Stephanie Luetkehans, Jennifer Micek and Mollie Preston; 10 grandchildren; one great-granddaughter, and a sister, Phyllis Ziegeweid. Services have been held.
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