The first president elected from outside the Cargill and MacMillan families, Erwin Kelm helps the company broaden its portfolio and expand globally.
The year 1960 was a turbulent one for Cargill’s leadership. After President Cargill MacMillan suffered a debilitating stroke and Chairman John MacMillan, Jr., passed away suddenly, there were no family members ready to lead the business. The man who guided the company through this transition and led for the next 17 years was Erwin Kelm.
Hired by Cargill in 1933 after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Kelm started as a barley merchant. He was one of the first to go through Cargill’s innovative training program, designed to groom promising employees for leadership.
As a merchant, he honed his own particular business style. The year he was hired was also the end of the US Prohibition, creating skyrocketing demand for barley to make beer. Working with breweries was new to everyone in the industry and barley came in countless varieties, but Kelm embraced the challenge, and the opportunity, head-on, soon joining the Minneapolis Grain Exchange to buy and stockpile the grain. He would then personally send the barley as samples to breweries until he made sales.
With time, Kelm became one of most respected barley traders, instantly recognizable on the exchange floor by his white gloves, an accessory he first began wearing to protect his hands. “I had an allergy for wheat seeds and every time I stuck my hand in one of the samples, my hands broke out, so I started wearing gloves,” Kelm recalled. “I stuck them in my suit coat. They figured I'd be in the market when I wore the white gloves, so they'd jack up the price. So, I started wearing them all the time.”
With a natural talent for numbers, Kelm continued to rise through the company ranks, commended for his confidence, vision and ability to empower his team.
As president, Kelm kept Cargill privately held, which gave executives the economic freedom to innovate with a long-term perspective. By renting entire trains instead of single cars, he transformed the crop transport industry. Establishing a network of new export terminals and utilizing trains with 115 jumbo hopper cars each, Kelm reduced Cargill’s rail costs by 50%.
“We haven't been afraid of change. We are willing to try new things. Economics, of course, really pushes people to try new things.”— Erwin Kelm, President of Cargill
Under his innovative, determined direction, there was no slowing down: the company expanded globally, establishing new facilities in South America, Europe and Asia. Through acquisitions, Kelm also introduced new areas of business, including steel, risk management, feed and salt—each a natural extension of Cargill’s original grain expertise.
By the end of the acclaimed “Kelm years,” he had crafted a legacy of success, expanding Cargill from a national grain company to a global trailblazer in the trade of international commodities.