Michel Firdbourg, Continental Grain leader and trade pioneer, dies at 87

by Emily Wilson
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Michel Fribourg, a dominant figure in the international grain business during his long tenure as chairman and chief executive officer of Continental Grain Co., died April 10 in New York. He was 87 years old.

During five decades at the helm of Continental Grain, Fribourg expanded his family's business into more than 70 countries and transformed Continental into one of the largest agribusiness firms in the world.

A pioneer in international trade, Fribourg personally negotiated ground-breaking grain sales to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. In subsequent years, he expanded trade with China and established some of the first joint-venture businesses in that country. He was a strong advocate of open world trade and freedom from government involvement in agricultural markets.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1913, Fribourg was the fifth generation of his family to manage the family business, which was founded in Belgium in 1813.

Fribourg joined Continental Grain in 1931 and worked in various offices until the start of World War II, when he and his family moved to the United States. During the war, Fribourg served in U.S. Army intelligence in France and became a U.S. citizen. At the end of the war, he returned to New York to direct Continental Grain. He was c.e.o. from 1944 to 1988 and chairman until 1994.

In the 1960s, Fribourg began to expand Continental's operations by acquiring a majority interest in Allied Mills, one of the largest commercial feed producers in the U.S. Through that acquisition, Continental became a major producer of poultry and pork and one of the world's largest cattle feeders.

The family-owned concern, now known as ContiGroup Companies, divested its grain merchandising operations in 1999, largely through the sale of those assets to Cargill, Inc.

Fribourg is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, of New York; three sons, Paul and Robert, of New York, and Charles, of Geneva, Switzerland; two daughters, Nadine Newman and Caroline Rosen, both of New York; two sisters, Renee Haas and Marcelle Zunz, both of Paris; and 13 grandchildren.