A Tribute to Two American Business Leaders

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They were both born in the 1920s, Ivy League educated scions of business families, intellectually curious and careful not to be ostentatious. They were also creative and ambitious businessmen who passed away last week with little fanfare.

They were Amory Houghton of Corning and Whitney MacMillan of Cargill.

Amory Houghton, better known as Amos, enlisted in the Marines and then went to Harvard University followed by an M.B.A. degree in 1952. He then joined Corning Glass Works, becoming chief executive in 1964.

Corning, founded by his great-great grandfather in 1851, made Pyrex measuring cups and cookware and glass used for TV tubes, a business which accounted for 75% of the company’s sales. Then an influx of Japanese imports crushed this business forcing Mr. Houghton to cut one-third of Corning’s workforce.

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Corning rebounded after it pivoted to the development of fiber optics betting that the hair-thin strands of glass would replace copper wire in transmissions of voice and data. By 2000, optical fiber and related telecommunications products accounted for more than half of Corning’s operating profits.

Mr. Houghton was unpretentious, driving a Volkswagen and eating regularly at the company cafeteria and after stepping down as CEO, Mr. Houghton served as a successful Republican Congressman.

Corning (GLW) has continued to evolve with 50,000 employees and major business segments in display technologies, optical communications, fiber optics hardware, environmental technologies, specialty materials, and life sciences businesses worldwide.

Whitney MacMillan was the last member of his family to lead the privately held food giant, Cargill. After Yale, he joined Cargill, working his way up to the top with a stint in the Philippines and some time in the pit as a grain trader.

As CEO, he expanded Cargill’s reach from primarily a North American grain trader to a global food titan with businesses and customers in every part of the world, especially in Asia and South America.

Mr. MacMillan was a globetrotter, organizing Cargill’s global infrastructure of port facilities and food processing centers and expanding into new commodity markets such as beef and cocoa.

In his two decades at the helm of this Minnesota-based company, he doubled the number of countries in which it did business and expanded its workforce from 20,000 to 80,000 while grooming a platoon of top executives that stepped in as he retired in 1995.

One of Mr. MacMillan’s last major accomplishments at Cargill was to set up an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which set this private company on a path toward more transparency in its financials and operations. Over his time as CEO, Cargill’s sales grew by nearly five times to $51 billion.

And Cargill continued on this growth path to become one of the world’s largest companies, with sales totaling $113.5 billion in 2019.

There are several takeaways from these two great business leaders and companies.

Unlike what is so common today, both men stayed with the same company throughout their career, learning the business from the ground up and developing a sense of stewardship.

Both Cargill and Corning evolved due to foreign competition and technology in the case of Corning and changing demographics and globalization in the case of Cargill.

Both Houghton and MacMillan put a premium on effort and growth and a penalty on complacency and inertia. Every business needs to look ahead to new markets – and competitors.

Finally, both of these gentlemen were curious about the world and for all their business accomplishments, did just as much outside of the business arena.

As long as America keeps producing leaders like this, all will be well.

Carl Delfeld

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*This post has been updated from an original version.

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