DURING THE DOTCOM revolution, a foosball table in the middleof an office spoke volumes without uttering a word. It said,We are young and hip and pierced in multiple places. Itsaid, We sleep on the floor next to our desks, and we likeit. It said, We are going to get that next round of funding,dammit.
So what the heck is a foosball table doing in the offices ofa 136-year-old, $49 billion agricultural food and tradecompany? The short answer is that it's mostly just taking upspace in a corner of Cargill's sprawling headquarters inWayzata, Minn. The longer answer is that it serves as atangible reminder that although Cargill may be an oldcompany, it's thinking about business in new ways.
The table belongs to the company's EVentures group -a2-year-old division whose mission is to search out, investin and nurture (through managerial and administrativesupport) promising Internet and technology startups. ButEVentures isn't a typical incubator. Unlike the speculativeincubators of the dotcom era -which emphasized short-termprofits and immediate IPOs- Cargill fully expects that itsinvestments won't pay off for years. Moreover, it has putdecades of industry experience -and corporate muscle- behindthe effort. This old-line company wants to build long-termviable businesses that tap into disruptive technologies. Bydoing so, Cargill hopes that EVentures will bring promisingnew ideas and technologies into the company's decidedlyold-economy businesses of agriculture, food, metals andminerals, and transportation.
THE LARGEST privately held company in the nation, Cargillseemed to be doing fine without a corporate venture group asthe millennium approached. But 1999 sales had actuallydeclined, to $45 billion from $51 billion the previousfiscal year. (This, in the middle of a booming economy.) Socompany executives started searching for ways to revitalizeCargill's bottom line, says Tom Erdmann, one of the managingdirectors for EVentures. Intrigued by the possibilities ofthe then hot Internet, which offered unprecedented access toinformation and the ability to build stronger customerrelationships, the company put together a strategic plan in1999 that aimed to grow revenues by focusing on thecustomer. Part of that plan included EVentures, whichCargill saw as a good way to learn about -and possibly profitfrom- digital technologies by using its own industryexpertise and its position as a huge corporation to makesmart investments. "We decided to pull up and devise along-term corporate strategy for e-commerce in Cargill,"says Jim Sayre, president of EVentures.