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Former Cargill Chairman and CEO Whitney MacMillan Dies At 90

Whitney MacMillan Cargill
Whitney MacMillan

Whitney MacMillan, former chairman and CEO of Cargill and noted patron of education and philanthropy, died March 11, 2020, in Vero Beach, Florida. He was 90. 

Over his 44-year career with the company, Mr. MacMillan led Cargill to a remarkable era of growth and diversification that continues today. He guided a major transformation in the way in which the company was managed and governed, adding independent directors to its board, initiating an employee-stock ownership plan and preserving the family commitment to remaining privately owned. 

As chairman, he was the last member of the owning MacMillan and Cargill families to serve directly as a senior executive operational manager of the global firm.  

“When the history of Cargill is complete, Whitney’s name will figure prominently as one of the firm’s most important leaders,” said William Pearce, former Cargill vice chairman and colleague. “He was an astute businessman and visionary strategist, who provided a critical bridge between the owning families and the company. His job was to maintain the unique commitment of the owning families to the business while developing the evolving management system needed to contend with extraordinary global expansion and to adapt to changing global food needs. He played that role extremely well.”

Together with his wife Elizabeth (Betty), Mr. MacMillan also actively supported numerous charitable and educational programs and initiatives, many mirroring his special interests in values-based education, health care and environmental and cultural preservation. In retirement, he taught corporate strategy at the University of St. Thomas school of business, while also serving as an advisor on global trade, economy and other subjects for numerous universities, governmental agencies and public policy organizations. He also held honorary doctoral degrees from Macalester College, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Montana State University. 

“Whitney projected a sense of stability and quiet, but also an intense commitment that everyone could see,” said Jim Howard, former EVP and lifelong friend.  “He loved to challenge assumptions and conventional thinking and constantly seemed to be looking further down the road than most people. He always told us never to settle for anything less than being the best in whatever we did. Those are, of course, still the hallmarks of Cargill’s culture preached and lived by Whitney.”

Born Sept. 25, 1929, in Orono, Minnesota, Mr. MacMillan was the great-grandson of Cargill founder W.W. Cargill and the son of Cargill MacMillan and Pauline Whitney MacMillan.

He attended The Blake School and graduated from Yale University, with a degree in history.

He began work with Cargill as a general trainee, rising through a series of positions in San Francisco, California, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Manila, Philippines, before assuming senior management positions. He was chairman of the board and CEO of the company from 1976 until his retirement in 1995.

“While Cargill helps the world to thrive, Whitney helped Cargill thrive,” said David MacLennan, Cargill’s current chairman and CEO.

In addition to his role as an educator at the University of St. Thomas, Mr. MacMillan also advised Claremont College, the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, the University of Wyoming, USAID and The World Bank on public policy matters, including food safety, environmental and development issues. He served on an extensive list of boards and was an active member of diverse organizations, including the Agricultural Development Council, the Mayo Clinic, Deluxe Corp., the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Peace Institute, the Salzburg Global Seminar, the Trilateral Commission, the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, the Ruckelshaus Institute, the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy, Yale University’s President’s Council on International Affairs, the Rural Development Institute and the Museum of the Rockies.

Mr. MacMillan’s personal interests ranged widely. He was a passionate rancher, operating a cow-calf ranch in Montana, while working closely with local organizations to protect and preserve the area’s natural habitat and its history. He also was a life-long athlete who played collegiate ice hockey. He maintained a love of both tennis and golf throughout his life. He and his wife also shared a passion for travel, circling the globe to visit all seven continents. Among friends and associates, he was known for his agile mind and wry sense of humor, without seeking the spotlight.  

Mr. MacMillan is survived by Betty, his wife of 68 years, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was a devoted husband and father and took great pride in his family. He is also survived by his sister, Pauline.

He was preceded in death by his sister Alice and his brother Cargill Jr.  

The family will have a private service at a later date. They have also asked, in lieu of flowers, that those wishing to honor Mr. MacMillan and his family send memorials in Whitney MacMillan’s name to Yale University and The Mayo Clinic.

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