Obituary: Gerald “Jerry” Mitchell led Cargill’s corn-milling empire

Farm Forum

Gerald “Jerry” Mitchell expanded Cargill’s corn-milling business from a lone plant bought in Iowa in 1967 to one of the multinational’s leading businesses.

A family man first and foremost, he was always driven to achieve — from his teen years when he excelled academically and athletically at Edison High School through his 43 years at Cargill, retiring in 1995 as vice chairman of the board.

Mitchell, of Naples, Fla., and formerly of Wayzata, Minn., died March 21. He was 84.

He started at Cargill in 1952 as a grain merchant of the emerging international merchandiser and processor of agricultural and other commodities.

“Jerry was a man of great integrity, great ethical grounding, so that those of us who worked for him always knew what was the right way to conduct business,” said Warren Staley, Cargill’s former CEO and a longtime friend of Mitchell.

“He had very high standards. He also had an absolutely incredible work ethic. … And he led one of the most successful businesses in the history of the company, which was the corn-milling business, for 20-some years.”

After buying the first corn mill from a small entrepreneur in Cedar Rapids, Mitchell guided the purchase of an oilseed plant and the pouring of equity into more plants and mills, expanding global exports and operations.

“He worked relentlessly to build that business, obviously with the help of a lot of good and talented people within those businesses,” Staley said.

In 1972, Cargill entered the modern flour-milling business. Mitchell led the milling division for corn and wheat.

Staley said Mitchell worked harder than anyone, showing “an insatiable desire to win” that went back to his days in sports.

Mitchell had turned down offers to play professional football to join Cargill the day after graduating from the University of Minnesota.

Born in Minneapolis, he was a 1947 graduate of Edison High School. He was a member of the National Honor Society and received 10 varsity letters in football, basketball and football. He won All-City honors two years in each sport and was captain of all three sports. The most valuable player for the Minneapolis Football Conference, he was later named to the Edison Hall of Fame.

At the U, he played football and basketball, earning three varsity letters in each sport, and was captain of the 1951-52 basketball team. He took a year off school to serve in the Army, then returned to earn his business administration degree with honors.

A lifelong U benefactor, Mitchell was a member of the Board of Overseers at the Carlson School of Management, on the advisory board of men’s intercollegiate athletics, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement.

In his first 20 years with Cargill, Mitchell worked in grain businesses around the country. He then became vice president of the milling division. In 1984, he was named a Cargill board director.

“He developed a lot of great leaders underneath him … and just raised everybody’s standard and made them better at what they were doing,” Staley said.

Mitchell also served as director of SaskFerco Products Inc. and Blommer Chocolate Co. At various times, he was chairman of North Star Steel, Excel Meat, Ladish Malting, National Millers Federation and the Corn Refiners Association.

He is preceded in death by daughter Susan Frank; parents; and siblings Lenora and Clarence Mitchell.

Mitchell is survived by his wife of 64 years, Marilyn; children Terri Veneziani, Jerry Mitchell Jr., Jean Mitchell Lockerbie, Barbara Frank. Mark Mitchell and Amy Mitchell; as well as nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Services have been held.