Portrait of a Leader: John MacMillan, Sr.
As Cargill’s second president, John MacMillan, Sr., employs his sensible business logic to steer the company through periods of economic uncertainty and growth.
January 01, 2015
Exposed to banking at a young age, John MacMillan, Sr., began developing his natural talent for business early on, taking after his entrepreneur father, Duncan D. McMillan. Later in life, John Sr. would change the spelling of his family surname, adding an ‘a’ to create the “MacMillan” moniker that carries through the Cargill timeline.
In 1891, John Sr. and his brothers set off for Texas to develop their own venture, a grain concern known as D.D. McMillan & Sons that would move commodities to booming cities across the American Southwest. But a few years in, an economic depression cut their success short, causing John Sr. to return to the McMillan home in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The initial failure made him more guarded about financial risk, a trait that later helped him prosper in various Cargill leadership roles.
John Sr.’s return to Wisconsin symbolized the start of his participation in the Cargill family business. In 1895, he married company founder W. W. Cargill’s daughter Edna, his childhood neighbor. The union officially united the two families, and in 1898, John Sr. began working for W. W. in lumber, then the Cargill Elevator Company, where he continued to fine-tune his abilities as a businessman and leader.
When W. W. passed away in 1909, he left behind an overleveraged business that had grown too quickly. John Sr. stepped in using his financial know-how to steer the company back toward prosperity. Within ten years, he had consolidated operations and repaid debts, reinventing Cargill as a financially healthy company leading the way in grain trade across the US.
But rescuing Cargill from debt would only be one part of John Sr.’s legacy: he is also remembered for his unwavering respect and integrity. As president, he maintained an open-door policy that encouraged employees to come to him with their problems. For example, when he heard of sarcastic messages and practical jokes circulating the workplace, he sent out a personal memo demanding mutual respect among all workers.
Later, when Cargill acquired grain competitor Taylor & Bournique, John Sr. was made aware of corrupt activity happening in far-off office locations along the US East Coast. Known for his zero-tolerance policy, he took a stand, defining the way Cargill does business: “Our word is just as good as our bond. We want to be absolutely fair always and while I do not mean by that that we expect to be imposed upon, yet, it always pays to be absolutely just under all circumstances.”
“Our word is just as good as our bond.”— John MacMillan, Sr., President of Cargill
When he retired in 1936, John Sr.’s eldest son, John MacMillan, Jr., took over as Cargill’s president, ushering in a new era of innovation and expansion. But John Sr. left behind a tradition of disciplined ethics and firm business practices that brought financial stability to Cargill—qualities that not only helped the company survive, but also positioned it for future success.