There may never be another business leader like Whitney MacMillan, at Cargill or in our state.
MacMillan was the last member of the founding family to lead the company, serving as CEO from the mid-1970s to 1995.
It was a period of rapid growth for Cargill, with MacMillan’s desire to do business everywhere that had the basics of a market economy. Cargill had operations in 31 countries when he took over, and 53 when he stepped down. Revenue grew nearly fivefold.
It was characteristic of MacMillan’s extraordinarily long-term thinking that upon stepping down as the leader, he wouldn’t agree that he’d had an impact as CEO. The company would know, he said then, in maybe 10 more years.
He once explained that a CEO should stay in the job 15 years, and he stayed longer. Any amiable bumbler could coast through five years and then retire with a fine reputation, he said, before any bad thinking could show up in company performance.
MacMillan died last week at the age of 90. A member of the founding family that controls Minnetonka-based Cargill, his background including an education at Yale University. He joined the company out of college, ascending to executive leadership as it was led by Erv Kelm, who wasn’t a member of the family.
As CEO MacMillan was often seen taking a midmorning coffee break at a round table inside the cafeteria at the château known at Cargill as the Lake Office. As former colleagues described it, anyone was welcome, knowing they would be discussing politics, the markets, books or just about anything else that held MacMillan’s interest that day.
Depending on who you were or maybe how the meeting was going, MacMillan’s style could be described as either Socratic, getting at the truth by asking argumentative questions, or just plain contrary.
When the company started opening up to media in the early 1990s, and a carefully orchestrated meeting took place with writer Ron Henkoff from Fortune magazine, MacMillan started an argument over who invented the flush toilet.
There was a growing fascination with Cargill back then, because the company was both global in scale and privately held, and controversies including the one over a big expansion of the grain trade in the 1970s had raised the profile of the whole industry.
MacMillan was an almost perfect spokesman for the company, although he wasn’t easy to reach.
He would say the company really was focused on the long term, measured in generations and not a profitable trade or profitable fiscal year. And the mission of the company — serving a growing global population eager for affordable and high-quality food — wasn’t changing.
Maybe one reason Cargill was so patient with its capital was because it could afford to be. It was a successful family business owned by a relative handful of principal shareholders who (to outsiders anyway) seemed to share a similar perspective.
Yet “long term” doesn’t quite capture how he talked. What other executives might call long-term initiative he might have considered more or less a trade.
It was during his era that a lot of what made the company Cargill was written down, including a durable statement about what the company aspired to be:
“We will be the best in improving the standard of living of the five billion people in the world.”
Think about that. Being the best at anything isn’t easy, but his vision for Cargill was to excel at buying, storing, transporting and distributing agricultural and other commodities, much of life’s necessities.
It meant promoting efficiency and competition, with the promise to the world’s farmers that they could get paid a little more for what they grew while providing nutrition to families for a little less.
How Cargill was going to do that was equally important to MacMillan. One way he would talk about it was through an idea called the core competence of a corporation, popularized by University of Michigan business professor named C.K. Prahalad.
It’s hard to know whether MacMillan actually learned something about his business from reading what Prahalad and his co-author wrote, or instead found popular articles that fit with what he already knew.
The idea here was that executives shouldn’t think about their company as a portfolio of business units or products. It was a portfolio of know-how and experience, and managers should try to perfect (knowing they would never achieve it) how a company did its work.
Managers should ask, what would our strategy be, and what opportunities would develop, if we were consistently the world’s best at something?
This skill, or competence, is also another way to tie together a diverse company — know-how a Cargill poultry feed manager in Brazil and a fertilizer executive in Europe would have in common and both care about.
And you can’t become the best at anything overnight.
Among the legacies MacMillan inherited was one from his uncle John MacMillan Jr., who led Cargill beginning in the 1930s. Even back then his uncle talked about Cargill creating “an endless belt of grain,” imagining a big conveyor belt running from the wheat farms of North Dakota to the flour mills of Europe.
Now, of course, it’s difficult to imagine an endless belt of anything from the center of North America to anywhere else. Globalization was under stress even before an infectious disease pandemic developed, and to get through the disease outbreak, travel has to wind down.
Maybe it’s a universal human response to the death of an important thinker like MacMillan to wish you could hear what he had to say about big events as they are unfolding.
It’s impossible to know — although someone who spent time with MacMillan might point out that with or without a pandemic, the basic needs haven’t gotten any smaller for the people of our planet, now approaching nearly 8 billion.