Thirty miles outside Minneapolis, the only structures interrupting miles of waist-high corn are a few long buildings covered in white siding. Those structures belong to Cargill—the $115 billion-in-sales agricultural giant that has topped Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies for 28 of the past 30 years—and they house one of Cargill’s most important projects.
By Chloe Sorvino
Stretched out along the interior of each building are rows of tanks filled with brackish gray water—and either tilapia or shrimp. Cargill is studying the best way to feed and raise seafood, and the various pools test different conditions, like the creatures’ nutritional requirements at different water temperature and their appetite for insects.
In recent years, Cargill has become a major supplier of fish feed to salmon, tilapia and shrimp farmers around the world. Now it is considering whether it should start its own farms, and these experiments in Elk River, Minnesota, are all about creating viable and profitable farms. “We have an opportunity to develop a sustainable way of making food where we can compete with pizza,” says Einar Wathne, Cargill’s head of seafood.
Cargill already touches much of what ends up on your dinner plate. The Minneapolis-based company’s primary business for the past 153 years has been commodities trading—processing, trading, exporting and handling millions of tons of wheat, corn, soybeans, beef, pork and poultry, among other things. But it is well diversified. It does everything from creating emulsifiers for beauty products to manufacturing zero-calorie sweeteners.
From that immense business has come immense wealth: The company’s founding family, the Cargill-MacMillans, collectively share a $49 billion fortune, and at least 25 heirs own around 90% of the firm. Fourteen are individual billionaires. (Six members of the clan have spots on the company’s 17-person board, but none have run the business since Whitney MacMillan stepped down in 1995 after a 19-year run as CEO.)
The family religiously reinvests an estimated 80% of annual operating cash flow into the business. In Cargill’s latest fiscal year, that sum would have come to nearly $4.2 billion. With that much cash, Cargill can pursue dozens of additional avenues of business. Seafood, or the so-called “aquaculture” industry, is one of them, and Cargill has approached it with particular seriousness, investing billions of dollars in that division since 2015. It’s already paying out. The fish-feed business alone already makes up an estimated $300 million in profit.
“Aquaculture represents a big opportunity for Cargill,” says CEO David MacLennan. “Cargill’s broad expertise and experience…uniquely positions us to lead that growth.”
The vast majority America’s biggest private companies are as solid and stolid as Cargill. No. 2 is Koch Industries, the $110 billion-in-estimated-revenue industrial conglomerate owned by the Koch Brothers that does everything from refine oil to manufacture Brawny paper towels.
There’s also Mars, Inc., at No. 6. Annual sales of its iconic candy—M&M’s, Snickers, Twix—and other products, such as Whiskas cat food and Uncle Ben’s rice, amount to $35 billion.
There’s a timeless quality to our list. Eight of the Top 10 were on our debut ranking in 1985, and across the entire list, the average age of the companies is 75. Just one unicorn appears on the roll: No. 50 Uber with $7.5 billion in estimated sales. The absence of any other unicorns is a testament to what has become the life cycle of a company: get started, raise money fast, go public—the opposite track of old-line behemoths like, say, Cargill.
In other words, they don’t make ’em like they used to.