Great America

America Loses a Great Common Sense Business Legend

Whitney MacMillan, R.I.P.

Whitney MacMillan, the last member of the founding family to run Cargill, the world’s largest privately held company and a global giant in agribusiness, died on March 11 in Vero Beach, Florida, of natural causes. He was 90.

MacMillan spent 44 years with the company, which was founded by his great-grandfather W.W. Cargill, including 20 years as chief executive officer. He retired as chairman in 1995 and was the last of the MacMillan and Cargill families to serve as a senior executive.

When I first met this true gentleman and business legend in 1979, he was Cargill’s chairman and CEO. Whitney had a reputation as a strict but caring leader and as a no-nonsense player. He ran a tight ship and was focused beyond belief. But because we shared a similar Scottish background and a lifelong devotion to Presbyterian and midwestern values and work ethic, we hit it off. 

Whitney had a profound effect on worldwide business thinking about supply chains and commodities but there was another side to his considerable business acumen.

Whitney MacMillan spoke his mind and often proved to be a contrarian and a very formidable thinker, both practically and conceptually.

I was introduced to him at the Institute for East-West Studies in New York City, which was founded and run by the late John Mroz, who had a knack for bringing people together from different worlds so as to think deeply about international relations. Whitney, over time, came to chair that Institute and our paths crossed more often at various annual meetings, in dialogues with Soviet dissidents and economists and on trips to places like Poland and the USSR. We met with the Foreign Minister of West Germany, Herr Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and with the top brass from the Kremlin. 

I can still remember his chairing a large meeting in Stockholm in 1980, where the leading thinkers from the United States, Europe, and the USSR thought about economic reforms just before the Berlin Wall came down. Some might even say such doings helped foment what was about to come to pass with the dramatic end of the Cold War.

I then encountered Whitney and his charming wife, Betty, at Yale University, where he was a significant donor and I was on the board and then later on the faculty. His philanthropic acuity matched his business sensibility and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, at Yale testifies to it.

On a number of occasions, I had the benefit to interact with Whitney in closed circles. There he spoke his mind and often proved to be a contrarian and a very formidable thinker, both practically and conceptually. In places as far away as the Bahamas we met under the rubric of the Templeton Foundation to consider the nature of venture philanthropy; and in Ojai, California, with Liberty Fund, to discuss the contours of a generous society and the responsibility of business in a free-market society. Whitney was never shy, even if he listened as much as he spoke. He exuded a kind of Midwestern common sense that was rooted in integrity and while kindly, demonstrated real authenticity. He was not a foolish or showy man and he knew his business inside out and outside in, as few CEOs do.

Common Sense Business Codified

When I approached him to co-author a book on prudent business, he was candid and said he would think and pray about it with Betty, always ably by his side. I respected that and sent him a lengthy detailed proposal and some texts from my earlier books with which he was already familiar.

In September 2016, while in the United Kingdom on business (inspecting chicken farms), Betty and Whitney came to our house in Woodstock, outside Oxford, and we had a most delightful grouse dinner at The Feathers restaurant, a traditional Cotswold favorite. It was all rather pleasant and conversational. I didn’t hear from Whitney for a few months and I was curious. Then on New Year’s Eve, at about 11 p.m., I got a text on my iPhone. It was from Whitney and it simply stated that Betty and he had decided to move ahead on this project and were fully supportive. We would meet numerous times thereafter to talk and collect ideas and to fashion our arguments. I learned a great deal about common sense and about the “Cargill Way” in those exchanges. 

Whitney was my dear friend and my co-author; it was an unusual alliance.

It has been my true joy to have such an ally and to bring the work forward. Our times together in Vero Beach and in Minneapolis will be something I cherish for the rest of my life. I know it meant a lot to him to see his business philosophy, rooted in American greatness, codified and explained.

For this reason, we aimed high and tried to write a book accessible and enjoyable to readers from all walks of life—not just business. This highly readable book was our humble effort to reorient business. Our book brought together a number of strands of thinking, all of which center upon the virtue and practice of prudence, that pertain to every sector of social and business life. In fact, one might even turn this phrase around and say that, while prudence is still a highly esteemed virtue in some realms of society, it is particularly to the economic field that prudence must be reintroduced.

Prudent behavior, framed by common sense, it seems, has left both the business vocabulary and the parlance of everyday thinking in economics. That is a shame. We thought it must be rediscovered in order to reorient business toward a better future where human flourishing is sustainably at the center of enterprise. Prudence is a critical virtue, which we thought can again be habituated in good business practices and systems.

It was our intention not only to restore prudence as a virtue to its rightful and proper role, in practical wisdom. We also sought to provide a rationale, many cases as illustrations, and more than a few helpful tools that could begin to move companies back in this right and good common sense direction. That’s why at the end of the book you find a number of audits, exercises, and a Virtue Matrix, that are of practical use to any company, large or small, public or private, and in any industry, and for any region of the world. We’d received a lot of feedback on how these arguments and these tools have specifically benefited businesses. 

In Minnesota last year speaking at the Charlemagne Institute I was told by the leader of a prison redemption organization that our book was being used across the state prison system to help felons on their re-entry into society and to become well-functioning/moral parts of society. I was flabbergasted and when I told Whitney, it brought him to tears.

This notion of economic stewardship is an explicit and recurring theme in business down the ages, though it has often been found difficult to practice. We believed it must remain so, even if in more recent decades it seems to have somewhat faded away. It implies a responsibility that humans have been charged with to care for all of the gifts (“resources” is the word the moderns would use) that we have been given, so as to preserve and pass them on to others and to future generations. 

In essence, it all boils down to trust—and humans, even in their business lives, are trustees.

Here is the short video on the book we produced. Watch it and share it as a tribute to one of America’s greatest business leaders.