How Cargill Became America’s Largest Privately Held Business
America’s largest privately held business started with just one grain storage facility. And the two families that grew it from there—the Cargills and the MacMillans—still own 90 percent of the business, which generates more than $120 billion in annual revenue and $1.6 billion in net earnings, while employing 153,000 people in 67 countries. Only six presidents/CEOs led Cargill during its first 130 years. The four who have led it during the last two decades (including current CEO David MacLennan, who took over in 2013) more than doubled the company’s annual revenue and worldwide workforce. Here a few highlights from how a little business on the prairie evolved—and has remained relevant, while retaining its rank as the nation’s largest private company for the last 28 years.
1865 • William W. Cargill of Janesville, Wis., becomes proprietor of a grain flat house in Conover, Iowa. He follows the expanding railroad system, establishing a network of grain storehouses in Iowa, southern Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Brothers Sam and Sylvester help (Sy goes independent five years later).
1881 • W.W. Cargill is also now into commodities including coal, lumber and seeds; builds a family mansion in La Crosse after moving headquarters there six years earlier. The house is across the street from Duncan MacMillan’s home. Brother James joins the business.
1895 • Duncan’s son, John H. MacMillan, and W.W.’s daughter, Edna Cargill, marry. MacMillan joins the Cargill business three years later.
1909 • W.W. Cargill dies. John H. MacMillan becomes CEO and works with banks to extend the company credit as it works down its debts, dissolving much of its non-grain trading business and improving its accounting procedures.
1923 • Purchase of Milwaukee-based Taylor & Bournique Co., a grain-merchandising firm with offices in Wisconsin and New York, provides Cargill with a private wire system, a communications innovation that gives the company a competitive advantage.
1928 • First non-U.S. office opened as Cargill Grain Co. in Montreal. Within two years, offices open in Winnipeg; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
1930 • Changes name to Cargill Inc. Forms Cargo Carriers to own and operate cargo ships and tugboats.
1936 • Merges all businesses under the Cargill Inc. name. • Enters the beef processing business.
1940 • Cargo Carriers expands before World War II by making a grain boat, war tankers, towboats and barges. Within two years, it contracts with the U.S. Navy to build six ocean-going tankers and establishes Port Cargill on the Minnesota River as the construction site.
1943 • Enters the soybean processing business with the acquisition of plants in Cedar Rapids and Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Springfield, Ill.
1945 • Purchases Nutrena Feed Mills, a pioneer in the feed industry. Also expands in the areas of soybean meal and oilseed.
1947 • Begins operating hybrid seed business in Argentina.
1954 • Enters the salt business by barging Louisiana rock salt up the Mississippi River for sale in the Upper Midwest.
1961 • Purchases a mine in Belle Isle, La., to supply its own source of salt. • Two years later, starts producing fish meal (used for livestock feed) in Peru.
1964 • First annual report to stockholders reports more than 5,000 employees and annual revenue of nearly $2 billion. • Enters the European feed market with the purchase of the Hens Voeders Co.
Cargill’s Core Businesses
Agriculture Commodity Trading and Processing
Buys, processes and distributes cotton, grain and oilseed, sugar palm oil and other products
Animal Feed and Nutrition
Develops, makes and markets feed products for aquaculture, beef, dairy, poultry, pork and pets
Energy and Industrial
Deicing technology, metals, energy, transportation and industrial specialties
Services for crop and livestock producers
Risk management and financial solutions for customers and Cargill itself
Food Ingredients and Products
Includes cocoa, salt, oils, malt, starches, sweeteners and sauces
Meat, Poultry and Eggs
Includes processing and distribution of beef, poultry and pork meats and products
1966 • Introduces its first standard corporate branding system, with a logo in the shape of a “C.” • Enters poultry industry.
1968 • Forms Cargill-Korea Co. as a joint venture to produce feed, eggs and poultry.
1972 • Enters the modern flour milling business by acquiring Burrus Mills in Saginaw, Texas.
1974 • Enters the steel-making industry by acquiring North Star Steel Co.
1975 • Enters cotton merchandising with the acquisition of Hohenberg Bros. Co. in Memphis, Tenn.
1979 • Expands in the beef-processing industry by acquiring Wichita, Kan.-based MBPXL Corp. (now Excel Corp.).
1981 • Acquires Ralli Bros. and Coney and associated trading companies from Bowater Corp., London, making Cargill a leading international cotton, rubber, wool and fiber trader. • Converts a ship to transfer frozen concentrated orange juice in bulk, and transforms the Brazilian orange juice industry.
1985 • Acquires 80 percent of Gardinier Inc., a major phosphate fertilizer mining and manufacturing company. • Two years later, acquires General Cocoa Co. Holland and Gerkens Cocoa Products, making Cargill a leading international cocoa processor and supplier.
1988 • Begins Shandong-Cargill Ltd., a $10 million joint venture with the People’s Republic of China to develop a cottonseed-crushing facility in Shandong Province.
1990 • Employs 55,000 in 57 countries.
1995 • USDA approves steam pasteurization for beef, a process developed by Cargill and Kansas State University; later installs the technology in all of its North American plants to reduce the risk of pathogens such as E. coli.
1997 • Acquires the North American salt production, processing and marketing assets of Akzo Salt, making Cargill one of the largest salt production and marketing companies in the world.
2000 • Sells its hybrid seed business in North America to Mycogen Seeds.
2001 • Acquires the Purina brand of animal feed. Also acquires additional turkey and value-added meat businesses, and exits the business of owning ocean-going vessels.
2002 • Acquires Cerestar, Europe’s premier maker of specialty starches and sweeteners. Also acquires a beef products business and adopts a new brand strategy, retiring the Cargill “C.”
2003 • Earnings pass $1 billion for the first time.
2004 • Leads the industry by partnering with the Nature Conservancy to pioneer a pragmatic, market-based approach to reducing deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon biome. Since then deforestation rates have dropped by more than 80 percent. • Teams up with IMC Global to form a publicly traded phosphate fertilizer firm, the Mosaic Co. Also acquires a major Brazilian poultry and pork producer, and a UK-based flavor house.
2005 • Launches Black River Asset Management. Also acquires palm plantation interests in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea; opens first office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and further expands its cocoa business through acquisitions in Vietnam and Germany.
2008 • Introduces Truvia, a natural sweetener made from Rebiana, part of the stevia leaf.
2011 • Acquires Provimi, an animal feed company in the Netherlands, for $2.1 billion, the largest deal in Cargill’s history. Also sells off to shareholders its 64 percent ownership stake in Mosaic Co.
2013 • Creates a starches and sweeteners joint venture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, marking Cargill’s first operations there; also opens an integrated poultry operation in China.
2015 • Agrees to sell its U.S. pork business to JBS USA Pork for $1.45 billion, in a deal that would combine the nation’s two largest pork producers. Also becomes one of the world’s largest aquaculture feed producers by acquiring EWOS, a major Norway-based salmon feed maker, for $1.5 billion.