Synergy . . . partnering . . . networking . . . alliances . . . These are all terms that came into vogue during the 1990s as downsized corporate R&D teams struggled to find the next big thing in a supersaturated U.S. market. Ingredient companies touted their expertise and research capabilities to skeptical but languishing food companies. Partnering with a supplier represented a radical cultural change and a leap of faith for many, yet the concept has taken hold, born of budgetary and marketplace necessity. Partnerships today are routinely formed to take advantage of combined strength and expertise. Seldom are confidences breached. In fact, university research facilities have become an important third leg of the stool.
Most of these partnerships are limited to highly focused objectives. Rarely do they venture into pure research, or exploration of new product lines. That’s why Cargill, Inc.’s commitment to its new Food System Design “umbrella” is such a noteworthy event.
Cargill, based in Minneapolis, Minn., has assembled a solid core of food technologists as well as marketing and support staff to work with four of its distinctive food businesses—Emulsifiers and Texturizers, Health and Food Technologies, Soy Protein Products, and Wilbur Chocolate—and their customers. In addition, Food System Design will seek out client relationships of its own aimed at developing markets for ingredient breakthroughs and development solutions.
Heading the technology effort is veteran Gilbert A. Leveille, vice president, who was most recently in a similar position with McNeil Nutritionals. “The group was put in place to try and evolve the new Cargill mission, which is to provide our customers with solutions instead of being strictly a supplier of ingredients,” he said. “Current trends really demand that type of approach, with food systems becoming more complex. It’s a clear recognition that it’s the sensory experience that drives consumer food choices.”
The aim is at the top line, where successful new products and line extensions can build out a food company brand portfolio, increase market share, add revenue, and ultimately have a positive effect on the bottom line.
The key objective of Cargill’s Food System Design is product innovation in both micro and macro ingredients and their applications. “We hope we can develop a much more intimate relationship with key customers than has been common,” Leveille said. “We are really working as a team with them in their product development.”
The process involves learning a customer’s marketing and technical objectives, identifying solutions, and then providing them. While it sounds simple, the concept is breaking new ground in food company–supplier confidentiality and management.
Recognition of this fact is built into the structure of the Food System Design business, which is not a profit center at present but a contributor to the profitability of its four units. “We view ourselves as a distinct platform, separate from the other operating companies like North American Sweeteners,” Leveille said. “We view them as clients with the same firewall as we have with our other clients. That’s a very critical element.”
The biggest challenge for the Food System Design group and its first batch of clients is maximizing the financial value of the relationship, Leveille said, particularly when it involves the development of proprietary products developed exclusively for the client. Behind this value building are Cargill’s considerable food technology capabilities. “These continue to be enhanced through recent acquisitions, such as that pending with Cerestar (an Italian ingredient firm). It will add a lot of specialty starches to our portfolio,” Leveille explained. In addition, he pointed to expanded pilot prototyping facilities, growing expertise in the sensory area, culinary capabilities, and consumer research.
“We’ve recruited top-notch talent in all these areas, and we’re continuing to add strength in both technology and marketing,” he said. The initial project lineup is geared to designing the next generation of functional foods within each of the four business units, particularly those that incorporate sterols and glucosamine. He said that the Wilbur Chocolate unit offers compelling opportunities in profiling sensory attributes.
Cargill is a major global player, but during the startup phase the Food System Design group is aimed at domestic business, with plans to “migrate rapidly” into Europe over the next few years. The slow growth is designed to give the group a chance to build a solid foundation of proprietary relationships. “We are going to put a lot more emphasis on intellectual property protection than we have in the past so we can provide real value to customers by providing exclusivity with regard to specific ingredients for certain applications,” Leveille said. Small to medium-size companies can benefit, too, from turnkey solutions that are less expensive than fully proprietary systems.
Leveille’s high-profile background gives him a considerable edge in building early business relationships based on trust and scientific competence. Prior to McNeil, where he gained insight into the pharmaceutical industry, he worked for Nabisco and General Foods in senior food science management positions. During most of the 1970s, he was a food science professor at Michigan State University. Throughout his professional career, Leveille has been active in the Institute of Food Technologists—serving as president in 1983–84—which he attributes to his strong industry peer network.
Ph.D., Nutrition and Biochemistry, Rutgers University, 1960
Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry, University of Illinois, Champaign, 1965-71
Professor of Food Science and Nutrition and Dept. Chair, Michigan State University, 1971–80
Director of Nutrition and Health Sciences, General Foods Corp., 1980–86
Vice President of Scientific Affairs, Nabisco 1986–96
Vice President of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs, McNeil Nutritionals, 1999–2001
Vice President for Technology, Food System Design, Cargill, Inc., 2002 to present
President of Institute of Food Technologists, 1983–84
President of American Society for Nutritional Sciences, 1988–89
Winner of IFT’s Carl A. Fellers Award, 1992
University of Massachusetts Chancellor’s Medal recipient, 2000
Fellow of Institute of Food Technologists
Fellow of American Society for Nutritional Sciences
by PIERCE HOLLINGSWORTH
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.