Earlier this week I went to see the brilliant play at the National Theatre about Lehman Brothers. Essentially this was a story about an admittedly always rapacious family company which lost its connection with the family and became even more resolute in the pursuit of money for its own sake, eventually leading to its own demise and its central role in the financial crash of 2008.
Everyone interested in food and agriculture knows about Cargill and what it does, but no one knows too much about it. It has remained a private family company controlled by 100-odd members. About 90 per cent of its common stock is owned by members of the Cargill and MacMillan families, descendants of the man who founded it in 1863.
It is the largest private US company by revenues and plays a central role in global food supply, moving millions of tonnes of agricultural commodities around the world. However, the sector in which it operates has provided its challenges in recent years because of glutted grain markets and an increase in farmers' power in negotiating crop deals.
Chief executive since 2012, David MacLennan. has sought to improve its returns and profitability. He has focused on food and agriculture businesses where it is most competitive. Dividend payments have historically been modest, but it paid $551m to shareholders in the fiscal year to 31 May, up 29 per cent from the year before.