Seven things you didn't know about General Mills

by Monica Watrous
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MINNEAPOLIS — “Ours is a rich history,” said Ken Powell, chairman and chief executive of General Mills, which this week celebrates its 150th birthday. What began as a single mill on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis has become a multi-billion dollar company operating in 130 countries with a portfolio of iconic brands that include Cheerios, Yoplait, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Fiber One and Haagen-Dazs.

But General Mills’ achievements over the decades span well beyond breakfast cereal and snacks. The company is credited with inventing the Nerf ball and the “black box,” creating the first radio jingle and developing what is considered the industry’s best available food safety system.

General Mills traces its origins to 1866, when Cadwallader C. Washburn built a $100,000 flour mill on the Mississippi river. Competition soon followed when Charles Pillsbury bought a stake in an old mill on the opposite bank of the river. The Washburn Crosby Co. was consolidated with several other regional millers to form General Mills, Inc. in 1928, just a year after Pillsbury Flour Mills, Inc. was incorporated as a publicly-traded company. The two businesses united when General Mills acquired Pillsbury Co. in 2001.

With sales last year of $17.6 billion, General Mills is one of the top 10 largest food companies in the world. U.S. retail represents the company’s largest operating segment, with more than $10.5 billion in sales in 2015, followed by its international business with more than $5.1 billion in sales and the convenience stores and food service segment with nearly $2 billion. Meals accounted for 26% of the company’s U.S. retail sales last year, followed by cereals (22%), snacks (20%), baking products (19%) and yogurt and other products (13%).

Since 2000, General Mills has been expanding its footprint in the natural and organic market with the acquisitions of such brands as Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Larabar, Food Should Taste Good, Immaculate Baking and Annie’s. In January, the company acquired Epic Provisions, a meat snacks company. To drive future growth, General Mills recently began partnering with emerging food brands and entrepreneurs through its new business development and venturing unit, 301 Inc.

“What’s exciting is all that we will do in the future,” Mr. Powell said. “The past is prologue. The future is what we’re about. We’re going to continue our strong focus on sustainability and advocate for food security, because food is essential to life.”

Read on for seven interesting tidbits from General Mills’ 150-year history.

General Mills invented the Nerf ball…

From 1965 to 1985, the company operated a toy division that included such businesses as Parker Brothers, Play-Doh, Kenner and Lionel Trains. Toys developed under General Mills’ ownership include the Nerf ball, Care Bears, Paint-by-Numbers and the Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven. The company also marketed Spirograph, Monopoly, Risk, Clue and Stretch Armstrong before spinning off the division as Kenner Parker Toys in 1985.

…and the Black Box.

The Ryan flight recorder, also known as the “Black Box,” was the product of a partnership between General Mills’ mechanical division and University of Minnesota professor James Ryan. A version of this aviation innovation is included in every global commercial aircraft. General Mills’ electronics group also built Alvin, the small deep-dive submersible that first explored Titanic wreckage.

A Pillsbury food scientist developed the gold standard in food safety.

The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, a seven-step preventative approach to food safety, was developed by Howard Bauman of Pillsbury in collaboration with NASA in 1959. The program was adopted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1972 and has since become known as the best available system for controlling and preventing food safety hazards.

General Mills created the first radio jingle.

“Have You Tried Wheaties?”, a barbershop quartet-style ditty and what is believed to be the first singing radio commercial, debuted on Christmas Eve in 1926. General Mills also sponsored the first televised commercial sports broadcast in 1939, partnering with Major League Baseball to present a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

General Mills provided food to soldiers in combat…

The company supported relief missions during World War I and produced food for Army rations during World War II. General Mills also built precision targeting technologies, including the jitterbug torpedo, for the military.

… and astronauts in space.

Pillsbury’s Dr. Bauman developed Space Food Sticks for NASA in the 1960s. The company filed for a trademark in 1970 for a “non-frozen balanced energy snack in rod form containing nutritionally balanced amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein.” Laying the foundation for energy bars, Space Food Sticks were available in caramel, chocolate, malt, mint, orange and peanut butter flavors.

General Mills opened the first Olive Garden in 1982.

General Mills developed the concept for the Italian casual dining chain a little over a decade after acquiring Red Lobster in 1970. In 1995, the company spun off Darden Restaurants, Inc. (which has since spun off Red Lobster).
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