Did you know that Cargill is the largest privately held corporation in the United States?
Did you also know that it was founded right here in Iowa?
In 1865 William Cargill planted the roots of the now global corporation when he bought the companies first grain flat house in Conover, Iowa (10 miles south of Decorah). Two years later William was joined by his two younger brothers, Sam and Sylvester, and the business continued to grow and began to diversify their offerings. Over 150 years later, Cargill Incorporated now has operations spanning the globe with over 155,000 employees across 70 countries. They continue to pride themselves on remaining true to the vision of their founder: “helping farmers prosper, connecting markets and bringing consumers the products they’re seeking.”
Long known as a merchant of commodities, the corporation has become one of the largest diversified service companies in the United States. In addition to merchandising crops, Cargill serves as a transporter of commodities; supplier of feed, seed, and other products to agricultural producers; processor of food ingredients (one of the main operations here in the Cedar Rapids area); manufacturer of industrial steel, salt, and other goods; and much more.
At the end of April, Jordan Timm, Corporate Relations and Reunion Giving Specialist for Coe College, had the opportunity to sit down with two young Coe alumni, Ciera Menken ’16 and Thomas Tittle ’18, both of whom have transitioned into becoming full-time chemists for Cargill’s Cedar Rapids corn milling plant.
Can you each tell me a little bit about yourselves, what you studied at Coe and what led you to Cargill?
Thomas Tittle: "While at Coe I studied biology, psychology, and neuroscience. I am originally from a small town that had a strong agricultural community, so that naturally lead me to Cargill after graduation. They had what I was looking for as far as science and technology, as well as that agricultural component."
Ciera Menken: "I came from Marion and went to Coe to study biology with a chemistry minor. I was originally on track to become a vet, but when I didn't get into vet school I was like "what now?", if I wanted to continue applying to vet school it was expensive, so I decided to start applying for some local jobs to see what happened and Cargill happened to be looking for a chemist at the time, so I decided to give it a shot and have really enjoyed it ever since."
In a nutshell, how would you describe Cargill to someone that might not know what company does?
Ciera Menken: "We take agricultural resources and refine them to create consumer products. The products range from corn syrup and flour to paper and cardboard boxes. For example, the dry wall in this room likely consists of an industrial starch to help hold it together."
What is your role within the company?
Thomas Tittle: "We are both chemists. Our role is to do a lot of the testing that ensures the quality of our products and to make sure we are meeting various criteria. For example, we spend time looking for different sugar profiles and the amount of specific chemicals inside the corn syrup, corn starch, or other products we are producing.”
What do you like most about the company/your role?
Ciera Menken: "I like that we have time for development and learning new skills."
Thomas Tittle: "One of the things that I really enjoy so far is the troubleshooting. Sometimes it feels almost like a game as you try to figure out unique problems in the most efficient way."
What do you find most challenging?
Ciera Menken: "A lot of the challenges I have had to deal with have been pretty minor and you learn to overcome them as they arise. I do think that sometimes learning how to speak with people of different backgrounds can be difficult. I am a social butterfly, but I have seen this as a main struggle point for many people. It is important to understand and respect how people are different from you and learn how you can best communicate with them so that there is a positive outcome for everyone. Take it in stride and figure out how to work as a team to get it done."
Thomas Tittle: "I would say a personal challenge has been time management. As chemists, our testing needs to be done within a certain amount of time, especially if we have somebody waiting to pick up the product. It is important to work within this time frame while also balancing other issues that come up and need to be solved in addition to your standard job duties. It is important to learn to manage your time effectively."
For each of you, Cargill was your first job after graduation, was there anything that surprised you as you transitioned to the work world and started with the company?
Thomas Tittle: "One thing that really transferred over well were the lab skills that we learned. A lot of the basic stuff from our biology and chemistry labs helped to set us up with a strong foundation for what we do now. Nobody likes to wake up for 8 AM labs but it really does make a difference after graduation.”
Ciera Menken: "The only other thing that I would add is, while there are some skills that you learn here that might not carry directly over to your job role, the biggest thing I think I took away from Coe was learning how to learn. That sounds confusing but there are a lot of times that we are shown new things and then we need to be able to troubleshoot and learn from it. They are really looking for somebody with the capacity to figure things out. They will teach you a lot of what you need to know but you need to have the right mindset to take it in and learn from it. Also you write a lot fewer lab reports but standard operating procedures (which I know Marty goes over) are very important."
Can you tell me a little bit about the corporate culture at Cargill?
Thomas Tittle: "One of the biggest things I have learned and did not know going into Cargill is that they have a huge safety culture. It is extremely impressive in comparison to any other company I have heard about, seen, or worked with. They take it very seriously. We have monthly live safety trainings, they have a formal program where everyone can learn about different aspects of the company and how safety is implemented company wide. The company line that you hear reiterated often is that they want to make sure everyone makes it home the same way that they came into work.”
Ciera Menken: "They also like to do a lot of outreach and volunteerism. The company encourages us to get out in the community when we can."
During your time at Coe were there any specific classes, clubs, organizations or teams that you participated in and still draw valuable experience from today?
Thomas Tittle: " I would definitely say the lab club courses. Specifically, the neuro biology lab and techniques in molecular biology lab. Those were two of the more hands on labs that really teach you how to work with equipment, set up your own experiments, and how to troubleshoot; all of which are valuable skills when you work in the lab at Cargill."
Ciera Menken: " I was in Alpha Omicron Pi and I think having those social connections and the ability to put yourself out there even if you feel slightly uncomfortable around new people and in new situations and then taking the time to get to know them and learn about them is a helpful trait to have."
Is there any key advice you wish you could go back and tell your college-age self?
Ciera Menken: "You're going to think you need to go to grad school but you don’t truly need to go to grad school. You should only go if you are on a path where you know it is required for a very specific role that you want. I think a lot of people get into the mindset that they need to go to grad school as their next step no matter what, but that's not always the best route and you can still get a good job."
Thomas Tittle: "Take some time for yourself and enjoy the experience. Don't force yourself to be up until 3 AM studying every night. Take some time for yourself to figure out what you want to do and how you want to use your degree(s) that you are working towards."
Any last pieces of information you think it is important for our students to know?
Thomas Tittle: "Cargill offers great opportunity for advancement. I started fairly recently and one thing I have already seen and heard about is chemists that have been there 6 months to a year are sometimes already being promoted. They are either taking the roles of people that are moving up themselves or taking on a different job role. I think that ability to move and advance in your career in a relatively short amount of time is something that everyone looks for."
Ciera Menken: "I would say that if you are open to learning and travel, Cargill is a good company with a variety of locations. They are always looking for people to work in different areas. When you aren’t tied down right after college then go for it and take that job in Colorado. Try new things and experience new places."
Thank you to Ciera and Thomas for taking the time to share their experiences and offer their valuable insight!