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Since 2013, Dave MacLennan, ’88, has served as CEO of Cargill, one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States by revenue and the employer of more than 155,000 people in 70 countries across the food, agriculture, industrial, and financial sectors. MacLennan recently spoke with dean Madhav Rajan in a virtual event for Chicago Booth’s Distinguished Speaker Series.

Dean Rajan: How do you feel Cargill has reacted to the changes caused by the pandemic?

MacLennan: One of the things that we’ve tried to do is to reassure people that we’re all in this together. That we support the decisions that they’re making, and that we need people to make decisions with their value systems in mind. At Cargill three of our declared values are: (1) put people first, (2) do the right thing, and (3) reach higher. As long as you have those filters—and especially in a pandemic when you need to be putting people first—it makes all your decisions easier. 

Rajan: How is Cargill balancing important short-term needs such as safety and supply chain operations with longer-term goals, such as R&D, for example?

MacLennan: That’s the challenge right now, and I am proud to say that our innovation has continued while we’ve responded to this crisis. A few months ago, we launched our plant-based protein products, which were rolled out in China in April, and our own plant-based patties have gone into stores.

I’m most concerned about the informal innovation and networking that goes on when you’re in an office. The idea sharing, the whiteboarding, the, “Hey, did you think about this?” In a couple of years, will there be fewer ideas because there wasn’t that incubation that occurs with social connections in the office? We’re keeping a careful eye on that.

Rajan: How do you think about diversity and inclusion and what would you like Cargill to become in that space? 

MacLennan: Promoting diversity and inclusion is a passion of mine. We’ve worked very hard in my seven years as CEO to make Cargill a more inclusive place, and we have a long way to go. For example, we start all of our board meetings and all of our executive team meetings with a moment about safety and a moment about inclusion—talking about how you keep people safe not just from physical harm, but from whatever may make people feel unsafe or unwelcome because of a lack of inclusion.

It’s incumbent upon all organizations, especially large organizations, to take that to heart. To ask: How can we be a better company? How can we be more inclusive—and not just by the people we hire, but in the way that we think and act and talk?

Rajan: You’ve mentioned sustainability as a key value. How broadly do you define sustainability? What are efforts that you put in at Cargill to become a more sustainable corporation? 

MacLennan: I think it’s the presenting issue of this decade, and it is more and more a part of consumer choice and consumer value. I named a chief sustainability officer about 18 months ago—she’s also head of supply chain, and she sits on our executive team. 

We believe our responsibility is not only to understand what we can do within our traditional businesses producing beef and poultry, but also to ask how we can work with ranchers to, say, help them learn more sustainable ranching and farming techniques. We have an effort called BeefUp, which is working in our beef supply chain to help ranchers use fewer resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

This is where the world’s going, and it has to go there to battle climate change. We take sustainability seriously, and we are embedding it into all of our strategic planning for the decades ahead.

Watch the full conversation on Chicago Booth’s YouTube channel, and register for upcoming events in the Distinguished Speaker Series events at ChicagoBooth.edu/distinguished-speaker-series.

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