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Marjorie Merriweather Post - Battle Creek’s Business Tycoon

 

When we think of past leaders of big business we don’t usually think of women.  But one of the most important leaders of American industry was not only a woman, but she was from Battle Creek.

It was in the dead of winter of 1891 that the young Marjorie Post arrived in Battle Creek, accompanying her invalid father on his quest for better health at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

She spent the next decade growing up in this small, but progressive, Midwestern town, as her father started his own successful business.  Moving from a near-penniless invalid to the founder of a million dollar food business, C. W. Post became a legend in his town, and across the country.  He was close to his only child and taught her the basics of his business operation.  While she was still in junior high school, Marjorie accompanied her father on his trips around the country, observing, and learning, as he conducted his business deals. This early training would serve her well in later life.

At age 14 she left home and went to finishing school in Washington, D.C.  But this did not mean that she no longer saw her father.  Post made frequent business trip to the nation’s capital and eventually bought a second home there.  Marjorie apparently loved life at the Mount Vernon Seminary, where she came to know the daughters of prominent politicians and industrialists.

A year after she graduated from school, the eighteen-year old  Marjorie married Ed Close, a young lawyer from New York.  He soon came to work at the Postum Company and Marjorie returned to Battle Creek as a young matron.  But after only a year, the young couple returned to the east coast, chafing under the control C. W. wanted to exercise over their lives.

Marjorie lived to life of a wealthy society matron until her father’s unexpected death in 1914.  She was suddenly an extraordinarily rich heiress, inheriting over 11 million dollars from her father’s estate. In addition, she received half of his Postum stock.  When this was combined with the stock she received after her mother’s death, Marjorie was the largest single shareholder in the cereal company.

Although Marjorie was intelligent, interested in business and had learned the basics at her father’s side, she did not directly participate in running the company she now owned.  In this era it was not considered appropriate for a woman to interest herself in the world of finance.  Instead, her husband took her place on the board of Postum.  Marjorie did not find this arrangement entirely satisfactory and worried that her husband – and the other directors of the company – were not exerting strong leadership.

But these concerns were overshadowed by the beginning of World War I.  Suddenly the government commandeered the raw materials upon which the company depended, forcing Postum to experiment with alternate kinds of grain and to build their own mills. Marjorie turned her energies to wartime charity, financing Red Cross stations and hospital ships.

With her husband stationed in France for the duration of the war, Marjorie was able to take a more active role in the management of the company.  She installed her own protegee on the board and became increasingly concerned about the competence of the existing management.

Then her life took a dramatic turn, when she fell in love with E. F. Hutton, a rising Wall Street stockbroker.  She divorced Close and married Hutton in 1920.  Marjorie and her husband increased their involvement in the management of the company and Hutton was named chairman of the board in 1923.  The couple was determined to make Postum Cereal grow, in accordance with a long-held wish of her dead father.

The first step was to relocate the corporate offices to Manhattan, where the company could fully participate in the boom times of the mid-1920s.  By 1924 the Postum board was ready to begin diversification.  To complement the ready-to-eat cereals they manufactured, Postum directors were looking to buy companies which made other types of prepackaged foods. 

Marjorie played a major behind-the-scenes role in this decision.  She had learned from her father the importance – and profitability --of marketing foods which made life easier for homemakers.  She was a strong advocate for the busy and overworked homemakers, despite her wealth and glamorous life style. 

She discovered frozen, or “frosted,” foods prepared by Clarence Birdseye of the General Seafoods Corporation.  She was fascinated by the process of preserving meats, vegetables and fruits developed by this New England entrepreneur.  Marjorie saw the potential for freeing the average housewife from the drudgery of endless canning of produce and launched a campaign to convince her skeptical husband to invest in the venture.

It took her almost two years of lobbying, but eventually she persuaded Hutton to purchase the entire stock of the Birdseye company for $22 million in 1929.  Marjorie’s dream of diversification was well under way and in June 1929 the name of the company was changed from Postum to General Foods Corporation. 

Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton had made a major contribution to the development of one of this country’s most important companies.  Her business acumen, and persistence, started the Postum Cereal Company on the road to diversification and the beginnings of the General Foods conglomerate.

Throughout her adventurous life, Marjorie delighted in living the high life of the rich and famous, at Mar-A-Lago, her fairy-tale estate in Palm Beach and Hillwood mansion in Washington, D.C., or sailing on her yacht, Sea Cloud.  She was one of the wealthiest women in the world, but she used her money for largely private philanthropies. She was a capable businesswoman, in an era when women were not supposed to be competent in a “man’s world.”