Recalling Donald M. Mennel as leader

by Morton Sosland
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Grain-based foods, and especially flour milling, is one of the few major industries where family ownership still has an important role. Indeed, many of the corporations in the industry’s top tier are currently identified with founding families. Five of the ten largest flour milling companies are privately-owned and controlled by families, distinguishing milling when compared with other food sectors. This structure becomes especially relevant in learning of the recent death of Donald McKisson Mennel, who showed just how important a family caring about a company and about the industry in which it operates may be. In many ways, Mr. Mennel and his family influenced the evolution of milling, the industry that produces the main ingredient of a huge array of foods consumed in every American home.

Mr. Mennel brought to his leadership of his family’s Mennel Milling Co. a multi-generation commitment to doing superbly as miller and to understanding the importance of helping guide the industry. His impressive intelligence and his physical presence were characterized by strength of conviction supported by realism and respect for facts. A dose of good humor and regard for his fellow beings, whether mill workers or milling executives, served him well in his long service on the board and executive committee as well as chairman of the Millers’ National Federation. His active participation in industry affairs aimed to assure milling avoided missteps.

Especially memorable was his commitment to soft wheat production and soft wheat quality. He is remembered for his cogent arguments to prevent twists in governmental acreage programs that would have disadvantaged soft wheat farmers. His sympathy for producers in areas where the temptation was always great to grow corn or soybeans came through his assuring that his company’s mills always had plenty of storage capacity to meet the needs of area producers and to assure uninterrupted grind. He brought sensitivity to urging production of soft winter wheat varieties that met the quality requirements of cracker, cookie and cake bakers, thus working to assure that soft wheat was not treated as the lowest common denominator.

In managing his family’s milling enterprise, Mr. Mennel pursued a different course from many other family operators who often looked to selling their plants. He focused on maximizing efficiency, while adding capacity in Michigan and Virginia to serve the needs of what he fervently believed was a growing market. It was Herman Steen, the milling historian who noted that when the company’s headquarters plant in Fostoria, Ohio, was built in the last quarter of the 19th century, as many as 800 flour mills operated in Ohio. That total is now 11, two of which are owned by Mennel.

This page’s admiration for Mr. Mennel would be incomplete if it failed to mention the unique advertising effort in this publication launched a half century ago under his direction and with his understanding of the readers he wished to reach. It was Mr. Mennel who suggested that a different message focused on soft wheat in each issue would emphasize how the company operated with wheat always in mind. Timely comments meant to educate have become the messages provided by Mennel advertising.

If anyone was ever tempted to wonder about Mr. Mennel’s eagerness for learning or his willingness to pursue new adventures, they need look no further than the way in which he launched his new career as a lawyer after retiring, at 65, as president of the family milling business. He obviously was comfortable with the next generation running the milling business, even though he remained as chairman and chairman emeritus. He studied the law, earning his degree in three years and practicing law until the early 2000s. For his friends in milling, Donald M. Mennel was often spoken of and known as a pre-eminent miller, one who contributed to the industry’s progress and well-being, while tending to the advancement of his family and its flour milling business.

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