Heinz Hutter joined Cargill Inc. as a merchant in his native Germany and played a key role in expanding the company’s operations in South America before serving as Cargill’s president in the early 1990s.

Hutter, who retired in 1994 from Cargill after 39 years, died Monday at his Wayzata home. He was 85. He was known for building new businesses in new countries for Cargill, and also his great love for opera.

Hutter was born in Munich, Germany, and graduated in 1954 from the University of Erlangen in West Germany, with a degree in economics. He later studied business administration and international law at Cornell University as a Fulbright scholar.

Cargill hired him as a grain trader in its Hamburg office in 1955. Within a few years, Hutter came to the United States, where he worked in a variety of positions until Cargill plucked him for a job in Argentina around 1960.

Based in Buenos Aires, he became president of the company’s Argentine operations and would work in South America for more than a decade.

“He was a champion for Cargill in Latin America,” said Greg Page, Cargill’s current chairman and a former CEO. “He had a lot of passion for those regions.”

In 1973, Hutter moved to Minneapolis to become head of Cargill’s food and farm products group, which included animal feed. By 1975, he was named a Cargill director and in 1981 became an executive vice president.

In 1991, Hutter was named president and chief operating officer of Cargill — already one of the world’s largest privately held companies — second only to CEO Whitney MacMillan. Hutter left Cargill when he hit the company’s mandatory retirement age of 65.

He was an erudite man with a “tremendous sense of humor” and “strong views on business and politics,” said Warren Staley, Cargill’s CEO from 1999 to 2007. “He read all kinds of books, from historical novels to agricultural policy.” And Hutter was trilingual: English, German and Spanish.

Staley, who considered Hutter a good friend and a mentor, said he first got to know Hutter in the early 1980s in England. At the time, Staley was running a corn-milling operation for Cargill. Staley met Hutter at a pub to talk about business and was asked if he would consider moving to Argentina for a new Cargill post.

It wasn’t exactly what Staley had in mind. But as they settled in for a drink, Hutter told Staley: “I can outdrink you, I can outlast you, so until you say you are going, we’re not leaving this room.”

“That was Heinz,” said Staley, who accepted the new opportunity, and reported to Hutter for five years.

Hutter was demanding, but didn’t want yes-men. “He expected you to be prepared and to push back,” Staley said.

Hutter is survived by his daughter, Christl Hutter Larson; his son, Robert P. Hutter; his fiancée, Dr. Bianca M. Fine; and five grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Sisi. Hutter met his wife-to-be in Brazil, while trying to establish Cargill in that country. They were married in Uruguay in 1960.