Sowing the Seeds of Corporate Social Responsibility

CMO Spotlight: Paul Hillen, Cargill

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Marketers today have caught on to the fact that corporate social responsibility provides a great opportunity to put the company brand into action. Paul Hillen, VP-global marketing at agricultural firm Cargill, is a ripe example of this modern thinking. You'd be hard pressed to catch him uttering a marketing cliché like "doing good is good business."

Paul Hillen
Paul Hillen

Rather than focusing on a silo of charitable activities, says Mr. Hillen, "I am a big proponent that whether it's philanthropic, an investment in a community or a partnership, [CSR] is all an extension of your business and brand strategy." Mr. Hillen provides some insight into the inspiration behind Cargill's highly interesting and bountiful CSR efforts.

Social responsibility to scale

You might be surprised to learn that Cargill is the largest privately held company in the U.S., with 2,000 locations and operations in more than 70 countries. With this kind of scope, Mr. Hillen says that Cargill's involvement in social projects is a natural extension of its global reach. "In many of those places," he says, "we tend to be one of the top employers. Thus our presence in each community is critical."

Cargill invests in these communities to foster a strong present and future workforce. Mr. Hillen recounts a recent trip he took to Côte d'Ivoire, visiting villages where Cargill helped build schools and drill wells to address two of the region's most pressing issues -- clean water and education. Providing schools for children is a key factor in preventing child labor.

The company is carrying out similar projects around the world, including opening its 75th school in Vietnam. "So for us, corporate social responsibility is about improving people's lives and doing it in a way that is directly linked to our business and brand strategy," says Mr. Hillen.

Following a purpose

If Cargill's CSR activities grow from the soil of its core business, then the brand provides the nutrients. Mr. Hillen tells me Cargill's purpose is "to be the global leader in nourishing people." The brand promise that follows is that each stakeholder will be most successful by partnering with Cargill, which leads to the brand expression: "thrive." "I chose 'thrive' because it works with our purpose -- if you're not well nourished, you can't be successful, and because it supports a broad range of initiatives across our many business units and countries of operation where we help our stakeholders to be successful. Our commitment to helping others thrive -- the highest level of success -- works across all of our stakeholders."

Thriving through the supply chain

The program that might best represent Cargill's CSR success comes in the form of sustainable and responsible supply chain management. It's one of the company's core competencies, says Mr. Hillen, and has been for 150 years. "It started in 1865 when our founder in Iowa opened a grain warehouse, because it was all about helping farmers to get their grains to market in a more efficient way," he says. "Instead of everybody doing it on their own, W.W. Cargill built it."

Today, supply chain management remains a central part of the company's expertise, so much so that Cargill created a tool in partnership with PwC that helps customers streamline and "green up" their own operations.

The Cargill Responsible Supply Chain Framework, as it's called, helps customers identify cost reductions in their supply chain while advancing their sustainability goals, recognize their existing achievements in sustainability so they can take credit for them, and reduce risk by identifying practices that need to be addressed.

"All of these things help our customers to build their businesses in a more sustainable and responsible way," says Mr. Hillen. "So we turned 'responsible supply chains' into not just a nice phrase, but also a service that we provide to our customers." Is it CSR, smart business, thought leadership or all of the above? Some food for thought.

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