Cargill marks its 150th anniversary

by Morton I. Sosland
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As a company that was founded in grain, prospered in grain trading and built a globe-circling business of hugely impressive proportions, Cargill deserves the admiration it is receiving this year in marking its 150th anniversary. Yes, there are privately-owned and public companies operating around the world that could claim an equally distinguished record of building businesses from origins in grain, but what Cargill has achieved in the past century and a half is different enough and impressive enough that it merits being singled out for praise. This company is not solely an unparalleled exemplar of success but also proof of how the principles it espouses may be pursued globally not just for its own benefit but for advancing all the world.

Looking back on prior anniversary celebrations by this company, it doesn’t take great knowledge to appreciate the massive changes that have occurred in this one company as the industry on which it is founded has changed. The company’s insistence on free and open trade between American states and equally important, between countries of the world, is a stand that has not always been easy. Yet, even when it seemed appealing to impose embargoes as a quick way of punishing supposed enemies or in an effort to produce a response, Cargill never hesitated in declaring its misgivings. When international negotiations aimed at producing global agreements that would affect trade patterns across the globe were being negotiated, it was often Cargill that volunteered the guidance of expert executives. As a result, rules, regulations and tariffs that impact global trade in grain, with results that have benefited buyers and sellers as well as producers, reflect the views of this company.

Of the many advances in how grain business is done that may be attributed to this company, hardly anything is more important than its leadership in revolutionizing shipping, on land and on water. It was Cargill that pressed for bulk cars in shipping grain in a complete shift from standard boxcars that were clumsy and costly. When bulk rail car shipping first emerged and then was intensified by multi-car trainloads, this development prompted many questions because it appeared to undermine railroad rate-making. It is in ocean shipping where unit costs have plummeted due to productive changes aggressively pursued by this company that have worked wonders not just in grain but in the full range of traded commodities.

Flour milling was a relative latecomer to the Cargill operating panoply. Making its serious entry into milling well into its second business century, the company chose to launch its flour milling operations by purchasing a Texas business. Having been quickly persuaded that it should not overlook the many bright opportunities in milling, which depend partly on aspects relating to grain trading, the company pursued capacity expansion through a series of acquisitions that quickly created one of the nation’s largest flour milling companies. Its intentions became strikingly clear in the past year by entering a partnership ranking as the largest miller.

The way Cargill has adhered to its principles, not just in how international trade should be conducted, but also in its dealings with customers and its own staff, as well as governments, helps explain the amazing financial success. Sight must not be lost of how change is also embraced when deemed appropriate. For instance, there was a time when partnering was anathema to the people running the company, with collaboration in that manner viewed as almost nonsensical. The Cargill of today is not only committed to partnering in businesses-like flour milling, but it has pursued a similar attitude in dealing with customers who are frequently referred to as partners. This is just a single example of what accounts for this company’s ability to achieve greatness. Yet, at the same time, there are no secrets and few mysteries, meaning that similarly remarkable progress is available to anyone willing to give the same enthusiastic try.

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