From 1976 to 1995, the CEO continues Cargill’s family-run legacy, emphasizing the importance of core values and sharing his vision for global impact.
Whitney MacMillan claimed that he never took advice from his father, Cargill MacMillan, even when it was good, because “children never take their parents’ advice.” But when he asked his father about what he should study, the elder MacMillan said, “While [you are] at Yale University, take every course that you will never get a chance to take the rest of your life. [Do not] study business because when you go into business, you will learn all you need to learn about business, and what they teach you at Yale [will not] be right.”
That point of view appealed to Whitney, and after graduating from Yale (with a degree in history) in 1951, he began his career in Cargill’s vegetable oil merchandising business. Just two years after his start, Whitney made a series of moves: first to the San Francisco, California, office, then to Manila in the Philippines, where Cargill needed someone to manage its new office. When he returned to the United States in 1956, he transferred to the grain division as a commodity merchant and later became director of sales promotion and project development.
Respected for his creative problem solving, Whitney continued to move up at Cargill, becoming the company’s vice president in 1962, joining the board of directors in 1966 and, less than a decade later, assuming the role of president in 1975. “Whitney had a very personal style of leadership,” said Ernie Micek, who worked under Whitney and went on to become Cargill’s CEO in 1995. “He liked to challenge people to explain their beliefs and preferred dealing with people face to face.”
Soon after Whitney’s promotion, then-CEO Erwin Kelm suggested he organize the company’s code of ethics into a concise statement. The company had always worked to maintain an honest and respectful reputation, not seeing the need for a formal written code. But as Cargill expanded across international borders, the complex web of international laws and cultures made it more difficult to maintain transparency. Whitney distilled the company’s values into a Statement on Business Conduct, which ensured that all employees understood the company’s expectations.
Whitney was named CEO when Kelm stepped down in 1976. While in office, Whitney steered the company into new markets on an international scale.
“I would say that in the period of time I worked for Cargill, [it] brought more people out of poverty than any other institution in the world.”— Whitney MacMillan, CEO of Cargill
As Cargill became increasingly international, Whitney authored an official vision statement to set Cargill’s goals for the future, which highlighted his focus on addressing poverty in developing countries: “We will be the best in improving the standard of living of the five billion people in the world.” Whitney believed this was possible if Cargill embraced its core competencies: “We will do this by buying, storing, transporting and distributing basic raw materials. We will do this by promoting, innovating and creating competition and efficiencies in this distribution chain.” This vision was Cargill’s first step to becoming the global leader in nourishing people.
A true visionary, Whitney served as CEO until 1995, unifying the global company under a defined set of principles and preparing it for the 21st century. Upon his retirement, Whitney noted, “We operate in countries that collectively represent more than 85% of the world’s gross domestic product. And we have retained our culture, our values and our capabilities in the process.” Looking ahead, Whitney believed if the company held true to its principles, success would follow: “I [would not] change that approach in dealing with the future. [I would] stick with the fundamentals.”