The Van Trump Report

How Charles Pillsbury Transformed the Wheat Industry

Most Americans are very familiar with the Pillsbury Company which has given us a host of iconic products, including the company’s Classic Yellow Cake Mix, every flavor of pre-made frosting, and those addictive Crescent Rolls. Pillsbury’s marketing efforts for its various brands also generated iconic characters like the Doughboy and Jolly Green Giant. The company itself is no longer around but its brands live on under different corporate conglomerates and are an ingrained part of American culture to this day. At its height, Pillsbury was one of the world’s largest producers of grain and other foodstuffs, and it all grew out of what was once a failing flour mill that caught the attention of a young Charles Alfred Pillsbury.

Born on December 3, 1842, Pillsbury had a modest upbringing in New Hampshire, where he eventually graduated from Dartmouth College. He became interested in the grain business after working six years as a clerk and partner in Montreal, Quebec for a produce commission company. Pillsbury left to join his uncle, John Sargent Pillsbury, in Minneapolis in 1869. His uncle gave him a job at his flour mill. Pillsbury and his father soon pooled their resources and bought part ownership in another operation.

While his uncle had encouraged the young Pillsbury’s purchase of the milling business, it was largely viewed as a bad investment at the time. The mill itself was struggling, and flour milling itself was not terribly lucrative or stable. The Pillsbury’s also had relatively little experience in the milling business, including his uncle, a serial entrepreneur that never stuck to any one thing for long. But Pillsbury decided the problem was the milling method itself and set about figuring out how to improve the process.

At the time of Pillsbury’s arrival in Minnesota, there were four or five flour mills, all deriving their power from the Falls, and grounding their grain with large buhr stones. But at his own mill, Pillsbury discarded the buhr stones, and introduced and improved on the newer practices. Early innovations he adopted included middlings purifiers, machines recently invented by Edmund La Croix, that could produce fine white flour from the district’s hard spring wheat. His was also one of the first American mills to use steel rollers instead of the burr stones to crush the wheat for the production of what was known as “new process” flour.

Pillsbury established the “Pillsbury’s Best” brand and claimed it was the finest flour in the world, which quickly captured a majority share of the high-quality flour market. The mill started posting profits shortly after Pillsbury purchased it and made the necessary changes. In 1872, he founded C.A. Pillsbury & Co. with his father and uncle, and began purchasing and building more mills. By 1886, the Pillsbury mills produced 10,000 barrels a day.

The company’s history in flour milling became synonymous with the history of the entire milling industry in America. The steel rollers Pillsbury used would go on to transform U.S. flour milling and led to important changes for wheat growing too, as it created a demand for the region’s hard spring wheat, which had been, up to that point, less desirable than the softer winter wheat of the South. Later, four new mills were added to the original plant, either by purchase or lease, including the Pillsbury “B”, Empire, Excelsior, and Anchor mills, and each of the new properties was rebuilt and equipped with the most modern equipment.

Pillsbury also played a big role in getting low freight rates for Minneapolis, as well as in building up the railroad system that helped make Minneapolis the center of the grain trade. To protect his supplies, he founded the Minneapolis & Northern Elevator Co., which owned storage elevators throughout the Northwest. 

The final step in the extension of the Pillsbury business was the construction of the huge Pillsbury “A” Mill. In preparation for this expansion, Pillsbury had went and visited and closely observed flour mills in Europe, including those of Budapest, Hungary, which had the reputation of production of the finest flour in the “old world”. The Pillsbury “A” Mill, was built in 1882, and became the pride of the firm, with a capacity of 5,000 barrels of flour a day, which later increased to 10,000 barrels. Production later again increased to +24,000 barrels of flour a day, and the brand became known worldwide.

Pillsbury also introduced a system of company profit sharing, paying as much as $25,000 per year in bonuses to workers depending on the company’s success. As a result, no strikes ever interrupted the Pillsbury business. What a success story, from a kid that knew nothing about the flour milling business. As I’ve gotten older and seen some things play out, I’ve learned that when starting something new, sometimes it’s best not to know too much, so then you don’t simply fall into the trap of “better sameness”. I’ve seen some of the best business leaders try and hire people from outside their core industry to bring a fresh and new perspective to the table. I suspect this is just the reason why… (Sources: MinnPost, Wikipedia, BizHistory) 

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