Entrepreneurial to professional at Bunge North America

by Emily Wilson
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How does Bunge North America differ today from 25 years ago? John E. Klein, president and chief executive officer, cited many differences, but none were more important than the top managers’ approaches to running the business.

Before he became chief executive in 1985, the Bunge culture was guided by entrepreneurship. "I have sought to institutionalize Bunge so that it has strong management throughout the company," Klein said.

A Princeton graduate with a law degree from the University of Michigan, Klein left a four-year law practice in New York for a position at Bunge and what he described as an "odyssey around the Bunge Group operations worldwide" that began in 1976. Included in this tour of duty were three years as controller of the Bunge companies in Europe.

Back in the U.S., Klein first headed the grain division and gradually added more segments of the business under his portfolio of responsibility. He took control of the reins of the business when his father, Walter Klein, retired from day-to-day management responsibilities in 1985. The elder Klein retired completely in 1990, when the company’s headquarters were moved to St. Louis, Missouri, from New York.

John Klein said that changes at Bunge Ltd., the parent company, including the headquarters move to White Plains, New York, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, have resulted in a closer working relationship between Bunge North America and its sister companies within the Bunge Group.

That the separation of Bunge North America from its corporate parent is narrowing is not only because the Bunge Group is now based in White Plains. While the process is still just unfolding, Klein said Bunge in the future will be operating less regionally and more as a global group. Citing one example, he noted the creation of Bunge Global Markets in 1999, which he said was the company’s strategic response to privatizations of government buying agencies around the world in the aftermath of the shift from centralized to market economies.

"We recognized that the Bunge Group needed to develop more expertise going all the way to our destination markets," he said.

As a result, the company has opened marketing offices in key locations around the world to merchandise grains and oilseeds and food and feed ingredients. While the initial effort has been centered primarily on soybeans and soy products, this has forced the company to look closely at opportunities to expand its origination capabilities.

"We need to be able to offer a broad line to satisfy our customers," he said.