ON BOARD: Art Collins brings a unique perspective to Cargill

February 11, 2015

Art Collins serves on Cargill’s Board of Directors as one of six independent board members. Collins has been on the Cargill board since 1996, and he also serves on the boards of U.S.-based public companies including U.S. Bancorp, The Boeing Company and Alcoa, Inc. Best known for his work as Chairman and CEO of Minneapolis-based medical device company Medtronic, from 2001 to 2008, Collins also previously held senior executive positions at Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories and was a consultant with Booz, Allen & Hamilton.

Collins recently spoke with Cargill News about his role on the Cargill board, what he believes are the company’s greatest strengths and his thoughts on navigating change.

Having a role on Cargill’s board as well as the boards of several very large public companies offers you a perspective few other people have. How do your experiences on these boards compare with one another?

Many people have asked me to name my favorite board. I’m very fortunate to serve on four top-flight boards, but trying to select my favorite is a bit like being asked to pick my favorite child. What I can definitely say is that Cargill has the most unique governance structure. There is no other board I know of that includes six family directors, representing each of the three major [Cargill-MacMillan] family branches. That is a unique structure, and very different from what one would find at your typical large public company. inpage-art-collinsArt Collins serves on Cargill’s Board of Directors as one of six independent board members.

I am one of six independent directors who are able to draw upon broad experiences, both from the public boards on which we’ve served and the public companies we have had the good fortune to run. When you add the five very experienced management directors and the six family directors, who collectively possess extensive family experience that none of the rest of us could have, I think it makes for a balanced and strong board of directors. It’s also fascinating to watch the dynamics within the group during board meetings.

In what other ways do you think Cargill’s structure as a private company sets it apart from the other companies you’ve served?

In my opinion, Cargill is in an envious and advantageous position as one of the largest private companies in the world. First of all, we have a group of investors who are primarily interested in the long-term health and growth of the company. As a result, the company does not need to deal with the Wall Street investment analysts, nor is management required to defend or explain quarterly earnings to that community. Having said that, as a private company, Cargill is not able to access the capital markets by issuing public stock, making the company more sensitive to the assessments of rating agencies like Standard & Poors, Moody’s and Fitch. However, considering all the advantages and drawbacks of being private, I think Cargill’s current ownership structure is a definite plus.

Going back to 1996, why did you initially decide to join the Cargill board?

Throughout my career, I’ve tried to associate myself with companies and boards that I could be proud of, ones that would provide me the opportunity to continue to grow and learn, and where my skill set would be valuable. While at Abbott and Medtronic, I worked for very large corporations that grew rapidly, that had large global footprints, that experienced significant change in almost every aspect of the business, and that had product lines that saved or enhanced millions of people’s lives. When it came to selecting boards, I consciously chose industry-leading institutions that were outside the medical field. In addition to carefully assessing the CEO and other board members, the governance structure, the product line, and the financial position, the corporation’s ethics and core values were very important to me.
I had been aware of Cargill for quite some time, and I knew very well that it would be hard to find a larger, more complex, more global company, or one with a better reputation for doing the right thing. And it wasn’t lost on me that, without Cargill, the world wouldn’t have nearly as efficient a food products system as it does today. So, you might say that it was an easy decision.

In recent months, Cargill has been undergoing some organizational changes within its businesses and senior leadership. As someone who has guided companies through periods of change, what insights or advice can you offer?

I think change is a natural occurrence. Any organization that stays static over a long period of time tends to become less responsive and less effective. Also, a healthy company needs to periodically review every important aspect of its business—including strategy, key goals and objectives, product line portfolio, organization structure and enterprise risk management, just to name a few.

I’ll share a word of advice I gave David MacLennan as he became CEO: “Beyond operating within the law and abiding by Cargill’s core values, don’t assume that anything else in place now automatically needs to stay in place. Don’t change just to change, but don’t be afraid to change. If what exists today makes sense for the future, keep and enhance it. If what exists today doesn’t fit, modify it or get rid of it. Explain your rationale for what you do, but get on with doing it!” 

I’ve worked with four different CEOs, watched the board go through a three-generation shift, seen an evolution of what businesses constitute Cargill, and weathered ups and downs in many of the company’s key geographic and product line markets. And through it all, I firmly believe that Cargill has been at its best when it had the courage to change, never forgetting its core values and guiding principles. And, for the record, as proud as we can all be of the accomplishments of the past, I believe Cargill’s best days are yet to come.

I wonder if you would share a bit about your interests outside of your work on corporate boards. What is something that readers may not know about you?

When I retired from Medtronic, a lot of people thought I might write a book on leadership or strategy. But I didn’t think that the world needed another ex-CEO penning a book on those topics. Instead, at the urging of my two daughters, I decided to write some stories intended for younger readers. Those stories have evolved into a nine-book series about the amazing adventures of two brothers. The Adventures of Archibald and Jockabeb books are now included in the curriculum of some elementary schools, and they have just been released in revised versions. If anyone would like additional information, they can go to the website: theajadventures.com. I must say that this project has been a lot of fun and completely different from anything I’ve ever done before.

And since we’re discussing change, as I move into 2016, I am also going to be involved in a new venture. I am now working with Sophia Shaw, the retired president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, to launch Acorn Advisors, a nonprofit consulting firm that will work with CEOs and boards of nonprofit institutions and those foundations and corporations that make philanthropic investments. The two of us will be able to draw upon our experience to offer advice on issues of governance, strategic planning and risk management. It’s really a way to give back to those nonprofits that are so important to the communities where we live and work