August 24, 2021

Down to Business: Q&A with Peter Hawthorne, former Vice President of Corporate Strategy & Development at Cargill

Peter Hawthorne, former Vice President of Corporate Strategy & Development at Cargill

Peter has helped form and supervise many of Cargill’s joint ventures (JV), which now include 150 JVs and minority investments globally. He previously led Cargill’s 35-person global corporate development team, which deploys an annual inorganic investment budget of $2bn. Peter chairs the boards of Ardent Mills and NatureWorks JVs for Cargill, and chairs the advisory board of Citrofrut S.A., Mexico's largest juice producer.

This interview was originally conducted in February 2018.

Q: Tell me about your early years

A: I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis and am the fourth of five children. My father was a World War II vet and had a career in finance. My mother was a conservatory-trained organist. She played every religious denomination so we had exposure early on to people from many different walks of life. 

After Stanford Business School, I joined Bain Consulting, which was a wonderful learning experience. I worked across industries and disciplines from strategy and profit improvement to acquisition integration. 

Q: How did you decide to pursue finance as a career? 

A: Finance was readily accessible out of college and I viewed it as a great way to begin learning about business and developing knowledge and skills. I think the more purposeful choice was coming out of business school and working for Bain. If there is anything I hold dear at my core it’s the perspective on strategy and engaging people effectively that I learned there. 

Q: What are some leadership lessons from your early years?

A: I’ll go back to my mother, who taught me to be curious and open and inquiring. She had a basic respect for and desire to get to know people, and she was willing to extend herself to meet many different people.

Working across cultures requires patience and courage to understand who people really are and what they want to accomplish; whether that’s a Chinese state-owned enterprise, a Japanese trading company, or a family business where the legacy may be foremost in the owner’s mind.

Q: What are some later leadership lessons?

A: Something I developed over time was the courage to seek to be understood, to be vulnerable, which usually creates a sense of openness and trust with counterparties in a corporate development setting. Sometimes it’s just as challenging to understand what Cargill’s interests are, and I’ve found myself playing psychologist internally as well as engaging third parties.

Ultimately, building relationship and trust is the foundation for being able to explore the potential for a deal, craft a solution attractive to all parties, and successfully consummate it. 

On a strategic note, I’ve found it incredibly valuable throughout my career to apply the strategic lens that I was taught at Bain. What is the nature of the business, what is the marketplace, what is required to be successful, what are the different ways to proceed? An acquisition is just an alternative way to build a business. 

Q: What does Cargill’s corporate development team look like?

A: Mumtaz Kazmi, based in Singapore, has recently been appointed as my successor and interim global head. Our entire team is relatively new; we have at least a dozen different nationalities on purpose.

We have a hub of 15 in Minneapolis and about 10 based near Brussels with two open spots. We have a team of 10 in Singapore and are looking for three more in Singapore or Shanghai. In addition to the roles in EMEA and Asia Pacific, we continue to hire junior talent (Senior Analysts, Associates, Senior Associates, and Managers) in Minneapolis.

Q: How do you hire?

A: I’ve sought hires for innate capability and potential as much as for competence. For character as well as performance.

One thing I’ve tried to be open to is people who inquire. No candidate is going to meet all the specs. It’s about being willing to have an initial exploratory conversation and invest further from there.

Q: What are some of your favorite questions to ask in interviews and why?

A: I like to understand where people see themselves in their career and what they are most excited to do going forward. What is it that fits them best? 

In addition, we all face challenges and come under stress, so how we deal with that is important because that’s going to be part of the experience. How people answer that question provides me a sense of their self-awareness and resilience in the face of adversity.

Q: What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

A: First, to examine their previous experience and what they’ve really enjoyed so they can build from there. Second, to have the confidence to engage with a breadth of people and have as many different conversations as possible. The more they learn, the more they can make good choices.

I’m a firm believer in people finding that which fits best. Don’t take something that is not a good fit; it’s unlikely to be something that you’re going to be happy with and therefore good at.

Q: Where do people stumble from a deal-making perspective?

A: From my experience, people forget to put strategy first. Understanding the fundamentals of what will create a successful business and then measuring the alternatives for realizing that - acquisition vs build vs JV - and keeping that underlying strategy in mind throughout the deal process is critical.

Second, you ultimately create value by building and operating a business. Effectively engaging your colleagues, customers and suppliers so you don’t fall down on implementation is critically important.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m retiring from Cargill in the autumn, and could do more board work or may consider advising one or more investors in the global agribusiness, food, and related tech spaces, leveraging my strengths and network. My career experience investing in, building and running bio-industrial, ag digital and novel food ingredients may be helpful to sovereign wealth, pension, and PE funds active in these markets.

I also have some real interest in exploring opportunities to help grow ag and food businesses in developing economies. So much of what Cargill does is outside the United States, and ag and food are baseline industries in places far afield - whether that’s parts of Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America or Asia. It’s a marvelous opportunity. 

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