Pet Milk Lesson 1
Over the next several posts, I’m going to talk about Martin L Bell’s book, A Portrait of Progress: A Business History of the Pet Milk Company from 1885 to 1960 (St Louis: Pet Milk Company, 1962). The story illustrates a number of points that I want to make about corporate ventures. When I say “corporate ventures,” I don’t just mean to limit myself to corporations or even businesses. I’m referring to any sort of project that brings people together for the long term—any case in which an organization is formed to bring about a mission that one person can’t do alone.
In the case of Pet Milk, it all started with a basic problem: how to keep milk from spoiling in the days before refrigeration. About the time of the American Civil War, the Borden Company figured out how to apply the canning process to milk, and their cans of condensed milk were put to good use by the Union Army. But Borden’s solution required that the milk be sweetened. Twenty years passed before anyone answered
the obvious next question: Was it possible to can milk without sweetening it?
John Meyenberg thought it was. He was a supervisor at a condensed milk company in Switzerland in the early 1880s, and he told his superiors about his idea of canning evaporated milk, which was unsweetened condensed milk. The procedure would be different, of course, and the equipment would have to be modified, but he was sure it would work. Unfortunately, he was unable to convince the people above him in the chain of command.
So he quit his job and traveled to the United States, heading straight for St. Louis. There were a lot of German and Swiss immigrants in that city who were in the milk distribution business, and he hoped to get them interested in his idea. Again he failed.
Not far away, however, there was another Swiss colony at Highland, Illinois. Although a much smaller settlement than St. Louis, this was a farm community that was looking for a chance to grow. When Meyenberg told them his plan, they listened. And in 1885 they formed the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company. (The name was changed to Pet Milk Company in the 1920s.)
Here, then, is Pet Milk Lesson 1: Corporate ventures begin when people invest in an idea, but the organization very quickly takes on a life of its own.
Meyenberg had a good idea, but that wasn’t enough. Lots of people have good ideas that never amount to anything. Businesses come into being when one or more people invest in an idea, patent it, and form an organization around it (either a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation). Then it becomes more than just an idea: it becomes a corporate entity. And that’s a whole ‘nuther animal.
(To be continued….)