Cargill’s third president brings big ideas and an assertive business style to drive innovation and expansion for the company.
Whether re-designing barges and towboats or negotiating with the Chicago Board of Trade, President John MacMillan, Jr., had the intellect, energy and imagination to help the company make great gains during his tenure.
He attended Yale University and fought in France during World War I before returning to Minnesota to join the family business as a trader on the floor of what would become the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. His bold nature helped him quickly climb the ranks to general manager of Cargill’s operations, a position that would prepare him for his coming role as president.
When his father, John MacMillan, Sr., stepped down as president in 1936, John Jr. became Cargill’s third leader. And while his character fit the legacy of his father and grandfather, founder W. W. Cargill, he brought a unique, new leadership style to the company.
As president, John Jr. was vocal and blunt. He could seem difficult to work with because he had a tendency to dominate decision-making, but many who worked with him also described his ability to be charming. His peers considered him one of the smartest men they had ever met and gave him a great deal of loyalty and respect. While John Jr. was a quick thinker with an eye for detail, he could also see the big picture, identifying ways that his various projects would better position Cargill for the future.
John Jr.’s curious nature led to many innovative solutions for Cargill, including a number of new structure designs that changed the way crops move. To create a more efficient barge design, he entered the shipbuilding industry—a bold move for a trading company at the time. To enhance Cargill’s crop storage capabilities, he developed a new terminal elevator using his idea of a “Big Bin,” which held significantly larger volumes of dry bulk grain than standard methods.
Interested in adapting an all-in-one nutrition concept, John Jr. conducted his own trials to create a soy-based source of nutrition for people. He also produced several patents for diverse industries, including new building construction methods, a more efficient watercraft propeller and even a redesign of cigarette packaging. Though unconventional at the time, many of John Jr.’s ideas became important advantages for the company. Ultimately, his habit of taking measured risks paid off: during his tenure as president, the company topped US $1 billion in sales for the first time in history.
But it was not just John Jr.’s assertive and experimental style that drove Cargill’s expansion. In 1936, the company sued the Chicago Board of Trade, which in turn expelled Cargill from the Board for manipulating the corn market. In the end, John Jr.’s self-confidence and willingness to follow his own course allowed Cargill to emerge from the situation with its reputation intact and its position in the industry stronger than ever. The company was cast in the limelight for the first time, as John Jr. was the feature subject in both Fortune and Business Week magazines, appearing on the cover of the latter.
In 1960, John Jr. passed away suddenly, leaving behind a legacy of strength and expansion. He helped Cargill solidify its status as a company with the confidence to blaze its own path, while still maintaining a sharp competitive edge.