• Always focused on growth, Ernie Micek leads Cargill’s entry into the high-fructose corn syrup business, a flagship venture for the company during the 1970s.
  • One of Micek’s most significant acts as CEO is 1998’s Challenge 2000, a 24-hour radio event connecting thousands of employees across the globe.
  • Challenge 2000 engages over 10,000 employees, informing them on company news and best practices, and inspiring them to improve business performance.

Portrait of a leader: Ernie Micek

As CEO, Micek concentrates on formalizing improvement programs across the organization, giving way to global development.

Ernie Micek did not like to settle. Before being voted as CEO of Cargill, he led the company’s corn milling division, where he sought ways to improve the performance of individual employees, as well as the business as a whole. He did it through the development of a formalized program originally entitled Total Quality Process, successfully implemented in the corn milling business in the 1980s. With time, it became the model for success measurement across the entire company, eventually renamed as Cargill’s Business Excellence Program.

When Micek became CEO in 1995, he continued his concentration on employee and business improvement, most notably with Challenge 2000: a global, 24-hour conference that focused on quality assurance and business progress for Cargill.

“How can we be the preferred supplier? How can we create new products at the lowest cost? Be the best in safety, and be an environmental leader?”— Ernie Micek, CEO of Cargill

Micek encouraged employees to set aside their work for the day and “stay tuned” by listening to talks given by various leaders within the company, including the CEO himself. He also made himself available for questions posed by employees phoning in from various countries. Participating business divisions hosted their own events to coincide with the programming, using games, activities and follow-up discussions to further flesh out key messages from Challenge 2000. It was truly global in its scope and not unlike the interactivity that would come from social networking a dozen years in the future.

With over 10,000 employees participating across all businesses in 14 different countries, Challenge 2000 was considered “the largest conference in the world.” Micek’s program allowed employees to collaborate in real time, an example of his constant pursuit to move Cargill forward in innovative ways. Much of what Micek encouraged employees to do would later reflect in the company’s strategic planning in the early 2000s, which placed greater emphasis on Cargill becoming the “partner of choice” for each of its customers.