Winter 2015

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My Northwestern Direction: Stephen Wilson

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by Stephen R. Wilson ’70, MBA ‘74
Retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, CF Industries Holding Inc.

Feeding the Earth’s population is a mission for some of the largest companies in the world, but success often stems from the very personal bonds we forge.

Stephen WilsonIn the fall of 2003 I was named chief executive officer of CF Industries, today the largest nitrogen fertilizer producer in North America. The company’s mission is to provide farmers with essential nutrients that increase their crop yields.

Shortly after becoming CEO, I traveled to Maumee, Ohio, to meet Mike Anderson, then CEO of The Andersons, an agricultural supply and grain company with a long heritage — and one of our important customers. When Mike and I began swapping stories, he mentioned Northwestern. It turned out that he, like me, is a graduate of both Weinberg and Kellogg. Further, we discovered that we had actually met before — back in 1969, during my junior year, when Mike visited Northwestern as a high school senior. Mike ’73, ’75 MMGT and I forged both a business and a personal relationship in the decade that followed our reconnecting.

Jumping forward to 2006, I found myself halfway across the world, at a fertilizer conference in Seville, Spain, where I had a meeting with another industry leader, Melih Keyman, the founder of Keytrade AG, a Zurich-based global fertilizer trading company. Keytrade had a long business relationship with CF Industries, but I had not met Melih before. There began another business and personal relationship.

When Melih asked that we get together to discuss a project over lunch, where else would we meet but in Evanston, the day before his son, Ahmet, was to graduate from Northwestern. (Ahmet ’07, ’12 MBA has since earned a Kellogg MBA.)

During our conversation, to my great surprise, Melih mentioned that he was in the process of selling his company. At my request, the very next day — the morning of Ahmet’s graduation — Melih visited CF Industries’ office in Deerfield, Ill., which resulted in our acquisition of 50 percent of Keytrade a short time later. Today Melih and I are close friends and both have the honor of serving as Northwestern University trustees.

About a year after the acquisition of Keytrade, Mike Anderson called to tell me about a young Northwestern Kellogg grad he had met, Andrew Youn ’06 MBA. As many in the Northwestern family know, Andrew founded One Acre Fund, a not-for-profit organization that supports small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. At Mike’s urging, Andrew came to visit me, and despite our generation gap, we hit it off immediately. I began to provide counsel and financial support to Andrew as I learned more about his great work.

One area that Andrew and I discussed early on was the fertilizer business and his need to develop better sources of supply. I immediately thought of Melih Keyman. I felt that Melih could help Andrew secure a reasonably priced, reliable supply of the products One Acre Fund needs. So I introduced Andrew to Melih, and today Keytrade Africa is a significant supplier to One Acre Fund in Kenya and Rwanda. Andrew’s organization has become a huge success, serving more than 200,000 farm families in 2014.

It has given me great pleasure to facilitate the unexpected development of this global network and to watch it blossom. CF Industries, The Andersons, Keytrade and One Acre Fund all operate in different parts of the global food supply chain. Yet we all share a common goal: helping farmers provide efficiently grown crops to feed the world.

I don’t believe that as diverse a group as Mike Anderson, Melih Keyman, Andrew Youn and I would have come together and developed such close personal ties were it not for our common Northwestern connection. I know I can speak for the others when I say that we are proud of being in the noble business of sustaining life through crop nutrition and delighted to share a strong bond to Northwestern.