Cargill Inc. posted its strongest quarter in more than a year on Oct. 10, buoyed by cost reductions, acquisitions and improvements in many of its businesses.
The Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant, one of the world's largest privately held companies, recorded fiscal first-quarter profits of $975 million, up from $236 million a year ago and a paltry -- for Cargill, at least -- $73 million in its fourth quarter.
The profit increase came despite a slip in first-quarter revenue to $33.8 billion, from $34.6 billion a year ago.
Meanwhile, the U.S. drought and bad weather in the Black Sea wheat belt have had a mixed effect on Cargill, which is likely to continue. "A key variable is how food and feed demand worldwide will adjust in the coming months if grain prices remain high," the company said in a statement.
Cargill, a huge commodities trader and maker of everything from chocolate to road salt, said all five of its main business units showed improved earnings during the quarter.
"This is an example of how our diverse business model can work in that it is designed to provide resilience and balance," said Mark Klein, a Cargill spokesman.
That model didn't do too well in Cargill's fiscal year ended May 31, one of its weakest in decades.
Cargill was battered by financial market turmoil; weakness in beef and soybean processing; and commodity trading strategies that went awry. The year featured a rare mass layoff -- 2,000 people, or 1.5 percent of the workforce -- and a significant cost-cutting and efficiency-boosting initiative.
In the first quarter, Cargill reaped the benefit of "considerable time and energy invested during the past 12 months" in lowering costs, streamlining business processes and ensuring more efficient capital allocation, Cargill CEO Greg Page said.
Investments pay off
Page said Cargill's $8.1 billion in investments over the past two years, which include an acquisition spree, also are bearing fruit. Cargill's biggest deal was its $2.2 billion buyout last year of Dutch animal feed producer Provimi.
The U.S. grain industry has been rocked in 2012 by the worst drought in decades and the lowest expected corn production since 2006. Meanwhile, the critical wheat-growing region of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan also has been hammered by drought.
Due to the U.S. drought, Cargill expects its North American grain exports to be less than originally anticipated this year. Also, high animal-feed costs -- the result of rising corn and soybean prices -- will make for a "challenging year" for Cargill's meat businesses globally, the company said.
But Cargill said it has the global resources and market insights to help its customers -- and itself -- deal with higher prices and shifting grain transportation patterns.
"The weather has altered the normal distribution of raw materials around the world, and that is pushing more international buyers to non-U.S. origins," Cargill said in its statement. "As a result, Cargill expects more atypical trade flows -- a condition that calls upon its capabilities in market analytics, risk management and logistics."