The large gray van, its windows tinted to block the glances of the
curious, pulled away from the Decatur Airport, heading toward Route 105.
Inside, four foreign visitors watched as images of the modest town came
into view. Working-class houses. An Assembly of God church. A man-made
lake. The vast fields of corn that could be seen from the air were no
longer visible, replaced instead by an entanglement of industrial plants
and office buildings.
These were the sights of a thousand other blue-collar neighborhoods in a
thousand other Midwestern towns. Still, on this day, September 10, 1992,
it was hard not to feel a slight sense of awe. For years, world leaders
had seen these images, perhaps from this very van, in a virtual
pilgrimage of power. In the last few months alone, this road had been
traveled by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, and by Dan
Quayle, the American vice president. Those men, like leaders before
them, had been drawn to this out-of-the-way place in the center of
America largely by one company and often by one man: Archer Daniels
Midland and its influential chairman, Dwayne Andreas.
Few Americans were familiar with who Andreas was or what he did. But
among the world’s moneyed and powerful, he and his grain
processing company were known well. In Washington, anyone who mattered
was acquainted with Andreas—or more likely, with his money. For
decades, he had been one of the country’s foremost political
contributors, heaping cash almost indiscriminately on Democrats and
Republicans—this year alone, Andreas money would be used by both
George Bush and Bill Clinton in their battle for the presidency. The
largesse helped transform Andreas into one of Washington’s most
important men, even as he remained comfortably ensconced in its shadows.
But it also thrust him into controversy. It was the $25,000 from Andreas
that operatives of President Nixon laundered into the bank account of a
Watergate burglar. Following the wide-ranging investigations that
stemmed from the Watergate scandal, Andreas was tried and acquitted on
charges of violating campaign-finance laws—but that was for the
$100,000 he gave to Nixon’s 1968 rival, Hubert Humphrey.
The foreign visitors traveling to ADM on this day hoped for an
opportunity to meet Andreas but were uncertain if they would. At this
point, they were scheduled only to speak with others in ADM management,
the people who ran its day-to-day business.
If all went well, the visitors expected the meeting to last some time.
After all, before the day’s end, there were several important
things that they needed to learn. But there was also one important thing
that they needed to steal.
The van turned onto Faries Parkway, heading directly toward ADM’s
homely, sprawling complex. Yellow flowers planted along the side of the
road did little to soften the effect of the property’s jagged
barbed-wire fence. At the main gate, the driver gave a nod to the guard
before turning right toward the squat, nondescript building that housed
ADM’s top brass. The van came to a stop beside the seven-foot
bronze statue of Ronald Reagan, mounted on a two-ton granite base, that
Dwayne Andreas had erected to commemorate a 1984 visit by the
Hirokazu Ikeda stepped down from the enormous vehicle, trailed closely
by Kanji Mimoto, both senior executives from Ajinomoto Inc., a giant
Japanese competitor of ADM. Two other Ajinomoto executives
followed—one Japanese, one European. Shading their eyes from the
morning sun, the men headed into the building’s lobby and
introduced themselves to a receptionist. She placed a call, and within
seconds a young, energetic man came bounding down a hallway toward them.
It was Mark Whitacre, the thirty-four-year-old president of ADM’s
newest unit, the Bioproducts Division. He was a man whom in recent
months they had come to know, if not yet to trust.
Whitacre smiled as he stepped into the lobby. “Welcome to
Decatur,’’ he said, shaking Ikeda’s hand. “And
welcome to ADM.
“Thank you, Mr. Whitacre,’’ Ikeda said in halting
English. “Happy to be here.
Whitacre turned and greeted Mimoto, a man closer to his own age who
spoke English fairly well. The other two men were strangers; they were
introduced to Whitacre as Kotaro Fujiwara, an engineer at the
company’s Tokyo headquarters, and J. L. Brehant, who held a
similar job at its European subsidiary.
With introductions complete, Whitacre escorted the executives down the
hallway toward ADM’s huge trading room, the corporate nerve center
where it purchased tons of corn, wheat, soybeans, and other farm
products for processing each day. On the front wall of the vast room, a
screen flashed up-to-the-minute commodity prices. At row after row of
desks, an army of traders barked buy and sell orders into telephones.
Around the edges of the room were various executive offices, most with
the doors open. Whitacre stopped at one office and tapped on the door
“Terry?’’ he said. “They’re here.
Terry Wilson, head of the company’s corn-processing division,
looked up from his desk and smiled. The expression was more a re-
flection of strategy than delight; he was hoping to finish with the
Ajinomoto executives quickly, in time for an early afternoon round of
golf. Like many American businessmen, Wilson often felt frustrated with
the Japanese. In negotiations, they seemed loath to horse-trade; they
would listen but often retreated into ambiguity, making no specific
commitments. Such tactics were considered a sign of virtue in Japan, the
vague responses praised as tamamushi-iro no hy¯ogen o tsukau, or
“using iridescent expressions.’’ Whatever its elegant
description in Japanese, for Westerners like Wilson, a hard-drinking
ex-marine, the approach was tiresome. He was not looking forward to it
Wilson stepped from behind his desk, past a television that was
broadcasting the day’s news.
“Mr. Ikeda, Mr. Mimoto, it’s been a long time,’’
he said. “You’ve come on a day with such nice weather,
it’s a shame you’re not here to play golf.
The men chatted about their golf games as Whitacre led them to the
executive meeting room, where they found their places around a
conference table. A kitchen staffer appeared, serving iced tea, water,
and orange juice. As everyone settled in, Whitacre walked to a wall
phone and dialed 5505—the extension for Jim Randall, the president
“Jim, our guests are here,’’ Whitacre said simply. He
hung up and returned to his seat.
Everyone knew this could be a tense moment. Randall had been at the
company since 1968. His skills as an engineer were indisputable; his
hands-on role kept the huge processing plants running. Still, the
sixty-eight-year-old Randall was no Dwayne Andreas. As much as
Dwayne’s smooth and polished style made him the perfect Mr.
Outside for ADM, Randall’s gruff, plainspoken approach ensured
that he would remain Mr. Inside. He often rubbed people the wrong way,
whether he was boasting about his sports cars or ADM’s market
dominance. The visitors today expected to hear about the company’s
might; they knew that ADM’s invitation to visit was partly for the
purpose of scaring them.
Randall walked into the room a few minutes later, introduced himself,
and took his place alongside Wilson and Whitacre. Instantly he took
control of the meeting and the conversation, describing how ADM was
transforming itself into a new company.
Over slightly less than a century, ADM had grown into a global giant,
processing grains and other farm staples into oils, flours, and fibers.
Its products were found in everything from Nabisco saltines to
Hellmann’s mayonnaise, from Jell-O pudding to StarKist tuna. Soft
drinks were loaded with ADM sweeteners and detergents with ADM
additives. Americans were raised on ADM: Babies drinking soy formulas
were downing the company’s wares; as toddlers, they got their
daily dose of ADM from Gerber cereals. The health-minded consumed its
products in yogurt and canola oil; others devoured them in Popsicles and
pepperoni. While most people had never heard of ADM, almost every
American home was stuffed with its goods. ADM called itself “the
Supermarket to the World,’’ but in truth it was the place
that the giant food companies came to do their grocery shopping.
Now, Randall said, ADM was entering a new era. Beginning three years
before, in 1989, ADM had taken a new direction, creating the Bioproducts
Division. No longer would the company just grind and crush food
products. Instead, it was veering into biotechnology, feeding dextrose
from corn to tiny microbes. Over time, those microbes, or
“bugs” as they were known, convert the sugar into an amino
acid called lysine. As people in the business liked to say, the bugs ate
dextrose and crapped lysine. In animal feed, lysine bulked up chickens
and pigs—just the product needed by giant food companies like
Tyson and Conagra.
Until ADM came along, the Japanese largely controlled the market, with
Ajinomoto the undisputed giant. Start-up costs alone kept out potential
competitors—tens of millions of dollars were required just to
develop the proprietary, patented microbes needed to ferment lysine. But
ADM abounded in cash; it had already invested more than $150 million in
the new business. Now, the world’s largest lysine plant was in
Decatur, ready to produce as much as 113,000 metric tons a year. And
running it all was Whitacre, a whiz-kid scientist who was almost
certainly the first Ph.D. ever employed at ADM as the manager of a
“We’re going to be the largest biochem company in the
world,’’ Randall said. “It just makes so much sense
for us. We have the raw materials available, we have cheap utilities.
It’s just a natural.
The Japanese executives listened skeptically but said little. If ADM
could produce that much lysine, it would have to gobble up much of the
existing market. Building such a huge business struck them as
irrational, foolhardy. ADM would have to keep large portions of the
plant idle while waiting either for the market to grow or competitors to
leave the business. Still, the executives didn’t mind hearing the
boasts. They knew that listening as ADM rattled its saber would give
them the chance to learn other, truthful information about the company.
As Randall spoke, Whitacre and Wilson did their best not to cringe. For
all of Randall’s swagger, they knew the most important fact about
ADM’s new effort was being left untold: The company couldn’t
get the damn plant to work. The bugs went in the vats, the dextrose went
in the bugs and out came—very little. In recent months, a virus
had turned up repeatedly in the giant fermenters where the lysine was
produced, killing the bugs before they produced much of anything. While
ADM was producing enough to have a presence in the market, the virus
contamination had cost as much as $16 million so far in lost production
time alone. And the pressure was really on: Dwayne Andreas had recently
suggested shutting down the plant and trying again with a test model.
Meanwhile, Dwayne’s son, Mick, who ran much of ADM’s daily
business, had been pounding Whitacre for weeks to fix the problem. But
after each attempted solution, the virus returned. It was not something
to mention to ADM’s chief competitor.
Ten minutes into his monologue, Randall pushed himself back from the
“That tells you about our plant, in a nutshell,’’ he
said. “Now, Mark’s going to give you a tour, and we’ll
see you back here later for lunch.
The Ajinomoto executives thanked Randall and followed Whitacre out the
door. He escorted them to his Lincoln Town Car for the short drive to
the plant. There, everyone donned hard hats and safety glasses.
They started the tour in the upstairs lab, where a handful of tiny
flasks were being automatically shaken. Inside each of them was a
mixture of dextrose and soy flour feeding a small number of microbes.
Even as the group walked past, the microbes were multiplying rapidly.
The irony was that those tiny cells of bacteria were the
multimillion-dollar heart of this giant operation. They were ADM’s
proprietary biological secret that had allowed the company to break
Japan’s control of the business.
Fujiwara and Brehant asked questions and jotted down notes. The group
left the lab, walking past the control room and into the main area of
The Ajinomoto executives hesitated, awed. In front of them was a plant
unlike any they had ever seen, a vast acreage of fermenters. Dozens of
them were spread across the plant, stainless-steel giants rising ninety
feet toward the ceiling.
The group headed out onto the plant floor, then down a metal staircase.
Fujiwara and Brehant walked near the plant manager as he described the
operations. Whitacre and Ikeda were a few steps back.
Mimoto, already behind the rest of the group, slowed his pace. He waited
until he felt sure that no one was looking. Quickly, he reached into his
pocket and pulled out a plastic bag, removing the moist handkerchief
inside. He placed the handkerchief on the staircase banister, rubbing it
as he walked down the steps. Before anyone noticed, he slipped the
handkerchief back into the bag, sealed it, and casually placed it back
in his pocket.
Mimoto knew that the multimillion-dollar bacteria used by ADM to produce
its lysine was growing everywhere in this plant, even places where it
could not be seen. He could only hope that, with the handkerchief, he
had successfully stolen a sample of it for Ajinomoto.
Weeks later, Whitacre was at his desk when the intercom buzzed. It was
Liz Taylor, his secretary who sat just a few feet outside his office.
“Yeah, Liz, what’s up?
“Somebody’s on the phone for you, but I can’t
pronounce his name. But he sounds Asian.
Whitacre picked up the telephone.
“Hello, Mr. Whitacre?’’ Liz was right. The
caller’s Asian accent was thick.
Excerpted from "The Informant: A True Story" by Kurt Eichenwald. Copyright © 2001 by Kurt Eichenwald. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.