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In Memoriam: Whitney MacMillan, IWP Supporter

The Institute of World Politics mourns the loss of our supporter Whitney MacMillan, who passed away on March 11, 2020, at the age of 90.

Mr. MacMillan was born in Orono, Minnesota in 1929.  He attended Yale University, where his father told him to study the subjects that he would never get to study elsewhere.  His father also advised him not to study business because he could learn that on the job. Taking that advice, he earned a degree in history in 1951.  He then went on to work for his family’s business, Cargill, Inc., a global company that focuses on food, agricultural, financial, and industrial products.  After holding many different jobs at Cargill around the world, he returned to the U.S. in 1956 and worked his way up to senior roles in the company.

In 1977, Mr. MacMillan became Cargill’s CEO and Chairman.  He oversaw tremendous growth of the company, making it into the largest privately-held company in the U.S.  Within 11 years, he nearly doubled the company’s number of employees and transformed Cargill into a truly global company, expanding its operations from 31 to 53 countries. The company also expanded into many other markets, including beef, pork, canola, artificial sweeteners, orange juice, salt, malt, coffee, cotton, rubber, wool, fiber, fertilizer, petroleum, and cocoa.  In his time at the company, Cargill’s sales grew by almost five times.

This astonishing growth presented a unique challenge to Mr. MacMillan, who wanted to maintain a consistent standard of ethics and professionalism that would apply to Cargill’s employees throughout the world.  The results of this effort were his Statement on Business Conduct and his mission statement for Cargill.  As he put it: “We will be the best in improving the standard of living of the five billion people in the world.”

Mr. MacMillan worked to make Cargill more transparent even as it expanded.  He also created an employee stock-ownership plan that reflected his concern for the welfare of the company’s employees.

Mr. MacMillan’s leadership style was similarly uplifting.  He was known for being very personable while also challenging people to explain their beliefs.  He would reference ancient Greek philosophers in senior-level meetings, while adding his interpretations and corollaries to their ideas.

In his book, Common-Sense Business: Principles for Profitable Leadership, he and his co-author, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, set forth a coherent set of principles of ethical business leadership. He emphasized the cultivation of virtue, stressing the importance of wisdom, as opposed to intelligence, of humility vs. hubris, and especially of prudence and common sense.

We at IWP are particularly inspired by his philosophy, since we stress that prudence is the most important virtue for statesmen: it is the application of sound moral-strategic principles to the particular circumstances faced by our national leaders.  It is the antidote to ideological templates that tempt too many people in the foreign policy community – templates that are shaped all too often by utopian illusions.

Mr. MacMillan’s life and philosophy of leadership are a testimony to the vital importance of a classical liberal arts education, which we at IWP believe is sorely needed among those who will take leadership roles throughout our society.

After retiring from Cargill, Mr. MacMillan was particularly active in volunteer work with various educational, research, and public policy institutions. He taught corporate strategy at the University of St. Thomas and advised government agencies.

Whitney and his wife Betty supported many charitable organizations and in 1988 created the WEM Foundation.  Through their foundation, they have supported many different organizations in education, health, culture, and international affairs.  The Institute of World Politics was one of those organizations.

Most recently, in 2018, Betty and Whitney gave a gift through the WEM Foundation of half a million dollars to support IWP’s general operations. This gift supported the school at a strategic time when IWP had suffered the loss of our Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Thomas Atwood.

Whitney MacMillan’s legacy is that of mentorship, service, and ethical leadership.  His life stands as a testament to what can be achieved with a principled and compassionate approach to business.  He will be sorely missed.

Requiescat in pace.